New England tight end Rob Gronkowski said the Patriots would take the night to enjoy it. Safety Devin McCourty said it would be closer to just a few hours of celebration.
However long the Patriots players planned to relax after their dominating 41-28 divisional-round win over the Chargers on Sunday , this much is clear: A very good Kansas City Chiefs team is waiting in the AFC championship game.
Meanwhile, in the losing locker room in Foxborough on Sunday, the Chargers headed back across the country after dropping their lone game of the season outside the state of California.
New England needed a field goal from Stephen Gostkowski in the waning seconds to slip past the Chiefs 43-40 in one of the wildest games of the regular season in Week 6. Tom Brady had one of his best games of the season in the Oct. 14 victory over KC, throwing for 340 yards and a touchdown and running for another to earn his 200th career victory as starting quarterback.
All of it was needed on a night in which counterpart Patrick Mahomes rallied his team from a 24-9 halftime deficit, throwing for 352 yards and four touchdowns in what was the Chiefs’ first loss of the season and his first as a starting quarterback.
Now comes a rematch against a Kansas City team that oddsmakers have installed as an early favorite. It will be rare air for the Patriots.
Sunday’s win over the Chargers sent the Patriots to the conference title game for eighth straight season. It will also be the 13th conference championship game appearance by the Patriots during the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era.
McCourty said despite their unprecedented run and performance Sunday, nobody in the Patriots locker room believes they can just show up and win at Arrowhead Stadium.
“You go to eight straight AFC championship games, you’re in the playoffs 10 years in a row, you kind of get in a mode like it’ll keep happening, it’ll be there,” McCourty said. “But this is a special group, and I think we’re starting to realize that we have one opportunity to try to take advantage of everything that’s in front of us.”
New England got three first-half touchdowns from rookie Sony Michel to set the early tone against the Chargers. He finished with 129 yards rushing, his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season.
The Patriots scored touchdowns on their first four possessions, building a 35-7 halftime lead.
Buoyed by the run game, Brady was in vintage form at age 41, completing 34 of 44 for 343 yards and a touchdown. He improved to 8-0 as a starter against Philip Rivers, who drops to 1-8 against New England all-time.
Afterward, Brady acknowledged that he heard the voices this season who doubted the Patriots and thought “we can’t win any games.”
Asked if he thought the win might have quieted those voices, he simply smiled and paused.
“I just like winning,” he said. “I just like winning.”
The Chargers’ final touchdown came long after the game was out of reach, but don’t call it garbage time to Antonio Gates.
The Los Angeles tight end is 38 years old, and it might have been his final game. When he caught an 8-yard pass from Rivers to make it 41-28 in the final minute, it made him the oldest tight end in NFL history with a touchdown catch in a playoff game.
Only wide receiver Jerry Rice had a postseason TD reception at a more advanced age.
“Pretty cool that if it were to be his last one, that his last catch was a touchdown,” said Rivers, who has thrown 89 regular-season TD passes to Gates, the most for a quarterback-tight end tandem.
“You’re talking about a guy that’s caught more than anybody in the history of tight ends. And he and I have thrown more in the history of quarterbacks and tight ends,” Rivers said. “If it were to be (his last game), you’d look back one day and say it ended just how it started there a long time ago.”
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
While a lot was made of the Chargers’ success on the road this season, Rivers said it might have been nice to play Sunday’s game at home.
They were 7-1 during the regular season, losing only when they played at the crosstown Los Angeles Rams. The Chargers won at Baltimore in the wild-card round to open the postseason.
“We won every game we got on a plane this year, except for this one. So we’d done a heck of a job on the road. Sometimes you look at what you did and you go, ‘Yeah, let’s just keep them all on the road because we’ve been good on the road.’ … There’s no question, you want to be at home where it’s about 65 degrees and it’s your place, not dealing with the noise and being able to communicate and all those things. Those things could have helped a little bit today, too. But they just outplayed us, they just outplayed us.”
MOVING ON UP
The Patriots won their 35th playoff game, tying the Cowboys for second all-time. With one more win, New England will tie Pittsburgh for the most postseason wins in NFL history.