Underdogs? Patriots show pedigree, down Chiefs in AFC title game

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Make it nine Super Bowls in 19 years for Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots after their 37-31 overtime win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday at frigid Arrowhead Stadium.

If anybody thought the Patriots "suck and can't win any games," think again.

If anybody thought the Patriots can't win on the road and get to the Super Bowl, not a problem.

Playing in his 13th championship game, the 41-year-old Brady improved to 11-0 against first-time playoff quarterbacks, beating 23-year-old Patrick Mahomes, the league's presumptive MVP, for the second time this season.

“It’s in his DNA. It’s a clutch gene. He’s got it,” receiver Julian Edelman said.

Yes, this Patriots team might not be as talented as some of the previous eight teams that made trips to the NFL's biggest game. But that doesn't matter now.

The Patriots, who will play the Rams on Feb. 3 in Atlanta, join the Miami Dolphins (three) and Buffalo Bills (four) as the only teams to reach three consecutive Super Bowls. New England tied the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most playoff wins (36).

In Sunday's victory, a first half that masterfully had the offense, defense and special teams complementing one another was critical. The Patriots had a time-of-possession edge of 21:07 to 8:53, and establishing the running game -- often using bigger personnel that featured two tight ends and fullback James Develin -- was a big part of the plan. That allowed the Patriots to play the game on their terms. On defense, playing a four-corner dime package was something a bit different and proved a smart approach against a dangerous Chiefs offense that was held scoreless in the first half for the first time since Week 4 of the 2016 season. If not for a Brady interception from the Chiefs' 1-yard line, the Patriots' 14-0 lead at the half would have been wider.

Then they held on, barely, with rookie running back Sony Michel playing a key role down the stretch and Brady leading another magical, fourth-quarter drive, getting the ball at his own 35 with 1:57 left and trailing 28-24. Rex Burkhead capped off the drive with a 4-yard TD. Meanwhile, Michel's fourth-quarter touchdown was his fifth of the postseason, the most by any rookie in NFL postseason history.

But Mahomes got the ball with 32 seconds left and drove the Chiefs into field-goal range, and Harrison Butker sent the game into overtime with a 39-yard field goal with 11 seconds left.

The Patriots won the coin toss and took the ball, and Brady led them on another winning drive with Burkhead scoring from 2 yards out.

“As soon as I saw it was heads, I ran off. I’ve seen this before,” said safety Devin McCourty, one of the team’s captains. “Anytime we go to overtime and we get the ball, I’m not really worried about anything. I’m going to get comfortable.”

Brady has now engineered 57 career game-winning performances to lead his team back from a fourth-quarter deficit or tie.

These Patriots embraced the underdog role this postseason, with captain McCourty saying players had a chip on their shoulder after a season of listening to critics talk about their deficiencies -- Brady no longer playing at an MVP level, limited personnel at receiver, an aging tight end no longer playing at high level and an inconsistent defense -- and how they didn't compare to past championship teams.

The criticism was especially sharp in September when the team was 1-2 after back-to-back road losses against the Jaguars and Lions. But reinforcements were on the way -- Edelman was serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing substances policy and receiver Josh Gordon was acquired in a trade -- and the Patriots went on to win their next six games.

The questions resurfaced when they were pummeled by the Tennessee Titans in November and stunned by the Dolphins on a 69-yard touchdown on the final play in early December. Then, after a loss to the Steelers in Pittsburgh that gave them a losing record on the road for the first time since 2009, the Patriots' chances of getting a first-round bye were in jeopardy for the first time since the '09 season.

But they finished with back-to-back home wins over the Bills and Jets, clinching the AFC East championship for a record 10th straight season. After beating the Bills, players let out a loud roar in the locker room as they watched the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Houston Texans, which put the Patriots back in position to earn the playoff bye.

The irony of rooting for Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, who had broken their hearts in Super Bowl LII, was noted by several players at the time.

"We've been counted out a few times and showed back up with a lot of resolve," Brady said. "We have great character on this team. Our story's still being written, and fortunately, we have an opportunity to write it."

If Brady and the Patriots write a Super Bowl-championship ending, Brady would become the only player in NFL history to win six. He is currently tied with Charles Haley (49ers, Cowboys) and holds 14 other Super Bowl records.

Among other things, he is the all-time leader in Super Bowl passing yards (2,576), completions (235), touchdown passes (18) and starts (8) by a quarterback.

Meanwhile, Belichick could extend his own record of Super Bowl titles for a head coach, as his five rank ahead of Chuck Noll (4), Joe Gibbs (3) and Bill Walsh (3). As for overall NFL titles, which dates to 1920, Belichick would tie George Halas and Curly Lambeau for the most by a head coach.

Although the Patriots didn't play at a consistently high level, their ability to put things together in the homestretch is a credit to Belichick's grind-it-out approach.

A revolving door at receiver contributed to the offensive struggles, with the team making 26 transactions at the position since the start of training camp. The acquisition of Gordon in mid-September helped stabilize things, as he averaged 18 yards per catch over 11 games. But Gordon was suspended indefinitely by the NFL on Dec. 20 for violating the terms of his reinstatement under the league's policy and program for substances of abuse.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski also endured a self-described challenging season, as he managed back and ankle injuries. His production was down, and after saying he would consider his football future after last year's crushing loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, it is possible Super Bowl LIII could be the final game of his nine-year career.

Gronkowski had described the season as a roller coaster, saying he was "all-in" and "along for the ride." The final stop this year is Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.

How the Patriots arrived there, led by Belichick and Brady, adds another remarkable chapter to their already decorated championship past.