The dominant story line all week had been how the AFC championship game represented a passing of the torch, from Tom Brady to Patrick Mahomes and the New England Patriots to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Must have lit a fire under the Pats.
The team that has been there, done that — and done it again and again — survived a back-and-forth fourth quarter to beat the Chiefs 37-31 in overtime Sunday night. Brady hit trusty targets Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski to convert a trio of third-and-10s against one of the NFL’s worst defenses, and Rex Burkhead plunged in from 2 yards out to send the Patriots to their third straight Super Bowl.
Mahomes and the league’s highest-scoring offense never got a shot with the ball in overtime.
The Patriots will face the Los Angeles Rams, who survived their own overtime thriller earlier in the day against the New Orleans Saints, for the Lombardi Trophy in Atlanta.
And the Chiefs will head into the offseason ruing another postseason disappointment.
They had never before hosted an AFC championship game. In fact, the last time they hoisted the trophy that now bears the name of their founder, the late Lamar Hunt, it was Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson who then led them to a victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the fourth Super Bowl.
But with their new star quarterback leading one of the league’s flashiest offenses, this was supposed to be the year Kansas City finally ended its 49-year drought. It was supposed to be the year coach Andy Reid finally exorcised his postseason demons and made it back to the Super Bowl.
Instead of a year of change, it was a year of the same.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick dialed up a defense that held the Chiefs to 32 yards total offense in the first half, and kept Kansas City off the scoreboard for the first time in any half all season. Then, it was Brady and the offense that dominated the second half and overtime.
The Patriots needed all the points they could muster, too.
Mahomes led the Chiefs to a touchdown in the third quarter and three more in the fourth, including a drive that Damien Williams capped with a short plunge for a 28-24 lead with 1:29 left in the game.
The Patriots answered with a 65-yard drive that took virtually no time, and one that showcased the Chiefs’ defensive problems. They appeared to have picked off Brady when a pass skipped off Gronkowski’s hands and right to Charvarious Ward, but a flag was lying on the other side of the field.
It was an offside call on Chiefs linebacker Dee Ford.
The Pats took advantage of the second chance, and Brady connected with Gronkowski down the sideline and over safety Eric Berry to convert third down. One play later, Burkhead skated into the end zone for a touchdown that gave the Patriots a 31-28 lead with 39 seconds to go.
Mahomes answered once more with two long passes, including a 27-yard strike to Demarcus Robinson, and gave Harrison Butker a chance to kick a 39-yard field goal and force overtime.
But when the Patriots won the coin toss, it put the Chiefs’ maligned defense back on the field.
Brady first connected with Edelman to convert on third-and-10, then found his trusty wide receiver again on third-and-10 for another first down. Brady finally hit Gronkowski, who darted inside of Berry for a tough catch, on yet another third-and-10 to give the Patriots a shot at the winning touchdown.
Three carries later, Burkhead was in the end zone celebrating New England’s next trip to the Super Bowl, and the Chiefs were streaming to a defeated postseason locker room one more time.