Throughout the Patriots’ run of playoff success under Bill Belichick, one of his best-known attributes has been his ability to craft game plans that have stumped their opponents.
He’s at it again.
This postseason New England’s best offensive weapon has been finding ways to keep the ball out of the hands of its opponents.
In wins over the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers, the Patriots used a commitment to the run game and efficiency on third down to dominate time of possession.
The Patriots held a nearly 17-minute advantage in their divisional-round victory over the Chargers, while going 7 of 14 on third down and racking up 155 yards rushing. It was more of the same in the AFC championship game against the Chiefs, with New England possessing the ball more than 23 minutes longer than KC, going 13 of 19 on third down (68 percent) and rushing for 176 yards.
Rookie Sony Michel shined in both games, rushing for 129 yards and three touchdowns against Los Angeles and 113 yards and two scores against the Chiefs.
“You have got to try to keep them off balance and got to make them think it is one thing and try to do something else, it is even hard then,” Belichick said of the approach against Kansas City. “You cannot sit there and do the same thing all night.”
The result in both games was fewer possessions for Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, forcing both to play hurry-up in the second half as they tried to erase early deficits.
The Patriots opened the game against the Chargers with a 14-play, 83-yard drive that ate up more than seven minutes and ended with a touchdown. New England would go on to score on each of its first four possessions to build a 35-7 halftime lead. It put Los Angeles in scramble mode for the rest of the game.
New England made Kansas City pay for deferring the opening kickoff in the AFC championship game, opening the game with a 15-play, 80-yard drive and touchdown. It took 8 minutes, 5 seconds off the clock, making it the Patriots’ longest opening drive in the playoffs under Belichick.
Tom Brady said it was the perfect equalizer to the hostile environment of Arrowhead Stadium.
“You play on the road, it is going to be tough. What travels is running the ball and playing tough,” he said. “That is good in any weather, any condition, any environment and any stadium.”
The 37-31 overtime win over the Chiefs was just the third road victory for Brady in the conference title game in six tries. While the Super Bowl will be played on a neutral field, the Patriots are hoping to duplicate that formula against Jared Goff and the Rams. Los Angeles averaged 32.9 points per game during the regular season and held the ball an average of 30 minutes, 42 seconds per game.
While the Patriots have been good on third down in both of their postseason wins, they were particularly unstoppable in overtime against the Chiefs, converting on a trio of long third downs in overtime to set up Rex Burkhead’s touchdown.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had a reception to convert one of those third downs, said the resurgence of the run game over the past two games has provided a spark to the offense.
“I feel like it’s what’s making us,” he said. “You gotta be able to run the ball. It opens up the play action. It opens up the receivers. It’s what we’ve been doing to win. … You gotta be able to grind it out.”
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said the players have done a great job of trusting the play calls.
“You’ve got to call something that you feel comfortable with and you know that our guys know how to execute well and then trust your guys to go out there and do it,” he said.
“They deserve all the credit in the world, they went out there under pressure and made some huge plays in those situations.”