This much is clear about the Patriots’ latest run to the AFC championship game: it’s come with a lot of introspection and reinvention on offense.
Gone are the days in which New England can just bank on Tom Brady piling up four-touchdown games on a weekly basis or can simply toss the ball in Rob Gronkowski’s orbit in crunch time and expect great things to happen.
Brady, while not showing accelerated signs of decline at age 41, did look more human during his 19th NFL season with only one four-touchdown game and 11 interceptions — his most picks since 2013.
Gronk isn’t as old as Brady, but he’s certainly more beaten up and playing with a body that after multiple injuries and surgeries had him seriously thinking about retirement after last season’s Super Bowl loss.
Following a regular season that saw New England lose five games — its most losses since 2009— Bill Belichick recognized the need for this team to lean even more on its collective offensive strength.
The result has been a team that has rediscovered its ability to run the football and wear teams down. New England did it successfully in Sunday’s 41-28 divisional-round win over the Los Angeles Chargers . It will be needed again for New England to upend a youth-led Kansas City Chiefs team in the AFC title game.
“You can’t get one-dimensional in these types of games,” Brady said. “It’s too tough against too many good teams. You get to this point and there’s very little margin of error and you’re going to have to be good in all phases. Running it, throwing it, kicking it, playing defense, everything. We’ll have to do it again.”
Sony Michel scored three touchdowns and rushed for 129 yards against the Chargers. The three scores were the most ever by a Patriots rookie in a playoff game.
Michel’s backfield mates were equally active. Rex Burkhead added a 6-yard TD run and James White’s 15 catches tied Darren Sproles for the most receptions in a single game in NFL playoff history.
They had a season-best four rushing touchdowns. The 155 rushing yards also marked the Patriots’ fifth time with 130 or more yards since their bye week. New England has not lost a game this season when rushing for 100 or more yards as a team.
“It’s all about trust and patience,” Michel said. “We’ve got faith that coach is going to call the best play possible for us to succeed and guys are going to take pride in executing the play — the offensive line, the receivers, everybody is going to do their job, and it’s our job to do our job.”
Like the Patriots, Kansas City has a steadying presence setting the tone in veteran coach Andy Reid, but the Chiefs also have a second-year quarterback in Patrick Mahomes who has been mostly unflappable throughout a season in which he’s a favorite to win MVP as a first-time, full-time starter.
After trailing big during their Week 6 matchup with the Patriots, Mahomes brought the Chiefs back and tied the game late. It took a field goal by Stephen Gostkowski as time expired for New England to pull out a 43-40 win in Foxborough.
While Brady threw for 340 yards and a touchdown in that game, he hasn’t fared well on the road against the Chiefs. He has just a 1-2 record with three touchdown passes and six interceptions in three games at Arrowhead Stadium.
This will be Brady’s first playoff game in Kansas City.
White said their task this week is not to overthink how to translate their success on the road.
“Just execute for four quarters, start fast, just play Patriot football,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what we did during the regular season. This is going to be a battle of what we do on next Sunday. We’ve just got to put our best foot forward and play Patriot football. That’s all we have to do.”