By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- In the week leading up to Saturday's playoff game at Gillette Stadium, I didn't love the Patriots' chances. It wasn't that I was unaware of what the team was capable of doing; it's just that it had been so long since I had seen that potential actually manifest itself in the form of a dominant victory.
But mostly, I thought the Patriots would struggle because I didn't believe in Julian Edelman. Or, more accurately, given the broken foot, I did not think that the Julian Edelman on the field on Saturday would resemble the Julian Edelman we're grown accustomed to seeing.
What a fool I am.
You heard it 500 times from Nov. 15 through Jan. 15. He relies on his quick feet. He won't be able to cut. Dez Bryant took a few weeks to get going after returning from the same injury. It's just not going to work.
Yeah, well. It worked.
Edelman caught 10 passes for 100 yards, the last of which bounded into his chest and allowed him to secure the victory in his hands.
Of those 10 receptions, eight of them resulted in first downs. And though the offensive line and Tom Brady deserve credit for preventing the Chiefs from sacking the quarterback even once all day, Edelman is an equally important part of that equation.
Obviously the offense runs through Brady, who's arguably the greatest QB of all time. And obviously there is no force quite like Rob Gronkowski. In that sense, you can never say that Edelman is the MVP. But he's unquestionably an MVP.
The Patriots simply do not win the Super Bowl last year without Edelman. And there's also this: When Edelman has played this season, the Patriots are 10-0. They're 3-4 without him.
And they might not have won without him on Saturday. Fortunately for the Patriots, they didn't have to find out, and they likely feel good about their chances next weekend.
But let's leave next weekend for next weekend, and instead let's take a tour through all of the leftover thoughts from the Patriots' 27-20 victory over the Chiefs.
--Playoff football is a fascinating beast, because so much of it comes down to timely execution, and even the smallest error can quickly become a season-ending mistake. It's also a time where the opposite of that is true; being able to step up in the playoffs is something that doesn't often happen by accident.
With that in mind, let's examine what I consider to be the defining drive of the day for the Patriots and Tom Brady. It started at their own 2-yard line, after Danny Amendola's 2-yard personal foul penalty (more on that later). Center Bryan Stork was out of the game at the time with an ankle injury, forcing rookie David Andrews into action. With the Patriots leading 7-3, and with the previous two New England drives ending in punts, the situation was not ideal when Brady took the shotgun snap in an empty backfield in the middle of his own end zone.
He calmly threw a strike to Edelman over the middle, hitting him in stride eight yards from the line of scrimmage and allowing Edelman to turn it into a 12-yard gain to get out of trouble. But a Brandon LaFell false start sent them back to the 9-yard line, at which point Brady rolled out the rare deep ball to Keshawn Martin. Lo and behold, it worked. I'm fairly certain Gronkowski thought the pass was intended for him until the last second.
The 42-yard reception was the longest of Martin's career. It was also his first playoff catch. Nice timing.
Two plays later, on a third-and-4, Brady fit a dart through the tiniest of windows to Edelman, who hung on despite getting hit in the head.
Two plays later, Somebody Named Dezman Moses thought it was OK to charge at the quarterback even though the ball clearly came out when Somebody Named Dezman Moses was still five yards away.
Somebody Named Dezman Moses was trying to take Tom Brady out of the game, but instead he gave the Patriots 15 free yards and seemed to only fire up Brady. (Somebody Named Dezman Moses had just six tackles all year, and he recorded no other statistics on Saturday. Just the penalty.)
A few plays later, on second-and-goal from the 11, Brady had a little extra jump in his step when he ignored Gronkowski in the end zone and decided to take it himself. Brady rolled right, tucked the ball and took aim at the right pylon. I don't know if Brady scored, but neither did the side judge who ruled him out of bound at the 1-foot line.
In any case, Brady pitched a fit, screamed at the sideline to throw a challenge flag, lost the challenge, then got behind Bryan Stork (who re-entered the game) and jumped over the top and over the goal line for a touchdown.
Eleven plays, 98 yards, seven points. That was a playoff drive, and it showed that the Patriots were operating on a different level from their opponent.
--Is it still considered a "quarterback sneak" if literally every single person in the entire world knows you're going to do it?
--The in-stadium video board showed Martin on the sideline after the 42-yard catch. Considering it's highly unlikely that the Patriots would have drawn up a play that had two receivers running so close together, it looked like a coach went over to Martin to say something in his ear. I'm no body language expert, but my best interpretation of Martin's response was, essentially, "Look, dude, I made a 42-yard catch to get us out of our own end zone. Shut up maybe?"
--Alex Smith stinks.
This will be a common theme throughout. But it's true. Watching that game play out, I couldn't help but wonder what it would have looked like if the Chiefs employed a quarterback who actually wanted to throw the football down the field. Seemingly the only time Smith was willing to throw the ball farther than 5 yards came on third-and-long plays when he really had no other option. Even then, he looked like he'd prefer to tuck the ball and run with it rather than make a pass.
Are you even a quarterback, man?
To wit: A third-and-12 at the New England 38-yard line. The Chiefs really only needed five yards to get into Cairo Santos' range. Smith threw the ball to his tight end, four yards behind the line of scrimmage.
They gained one yard. They punted.
Later, on a second-and-7 from the 17-yard line before halftime, Smith threw to Kelce at the line of scrimmage.
Smith ended up running for the first down, setting up a goal-to-go series that ended with a pass that was closer to the front row of fans than it was to receiver Chris Conley.
The Chiefs settled for a field goal.
And then, in the final minutes, after the offense got down to the 1-yard line, Charcandrick West got stuffed behind the line and Smith (a graduate of the Andy Reid School of Clock Management) allowed 33 (thirty-three) seconds to waste away before the two-minute warning. Coming out of the two-minute warning, after a false start, Smith took a snap from the 7-yard line and ... threw it to the 4-yard line.
THROW THE BALL INTO THE END ZONE, ALEX SMITH!
But you're not going to win in Foxboro in January if you're not fully committed to at least trying to score touchdowns. But trying to score a touchdown never seems like a top priority for Smith.
--Then again, when THIS is what happens when you do throw the ball into the end zone ...
... perhaps there is a reason for the short passes well shy of the goal line.
--Considering neither team turns the ball over, even one turnover in this game figured to be huge. It was. Chandler Jones used every last centimeter of his 35.5-inch wingspan to strip the ball from Knile Davis on the opening drive of the second half, and the New England offense quickly turned it into six points.
But the story could have been quite different if Sean Smith had held onto a bobbled Edelman pass at the end of the first quarter.
That would have set the Chiefs up at the New England 35-yard line, trailing 7-3. They would have been in prime position to potentially take the lead (though, given their methodical nature, maybe not). Instead, Smith dropped it.
--That was probably Edelman's worst play, but at the same time, he had gained about 5 yards of separation from Smith before the bobble. Still, for Pro Football Focus to give Edelman a negative grade for his performance is not exactly the greatest bit of advertising possible for PFF.
--I didn't even know Jason Avant was still in the league. Guy was huge. How about that? #Sports!
--The Danny Amendola hit on the Chiefs special teamer drew some controversy, I guess, because Vontaze Burfict is a cheap shot artist and everyone loves to turn one story into a trend. To me, it was pretty simple. Amendola was legally allowed to hit the guy to try to prevent him from downing the ball near the goal line. Amendola tried to hit the guy in the chest, and they're the same height, but the fella was crouched a bit, so Amendola caught some facemask on the way to hitting the guy in the shoulder pad.
I won't say it was much ado about nothing. It warranted a penalty, because again, he did make some minor contact with the facemask while delivering the hit. But it was much ado about very little. It's still football, people. Hitting is legal.
--Some outlets might have gone with "Jamell Fleming Compares Amendola's Hit To Burfict's" upon seeing this tweet:
Me? I'd have gone with "Football Player Unaware That Football Sometimes Happens On Football Field; Unhappy With Football."
--Speaking of big hits, Rob Ninkovich was in a vulnerable position to get blind-sided on a block by Charcandrick West. Rather than getting de-cleated, Ninkovich was aware enough to brace himself. As a result, he knocked West on his butt.
That's called awareness. Some players have it. Others complain on Twitter when they get hit.
Next time, pay attention, Jamell.
--In some corners of the football world, there are fervent debates about YAC, or yards after catch. Some people believe adamantly that it is a stat that is entirely the result of the abilities of the wide receiver. There are others who believe the quarterback has much more to do with the equation.
I personally don't understand why so many people feel the need to be so black and white, especially in a sport as fluid and free as football. Giant playing surface, chaos everywhere, stuff happens. A good example of both the quarterback and receiver being responsible for YAC came in the third quarter. Rob Gronkowski caught a pass over the middle. Brady hit him perfectly in stride, right at the chest, allowing Gronkowski to turn a 7-yard reception into an 18-yard reception.
Football is a beautiful team sport. Stop being annoying, people arguing about dumb things on the Internet.
(Says the guy who argues about dumb things on the Internet for a living.)
--I don't want to create a "Spygate, Part II" situation, but ... do opponents not scout Rob Gronkowski? Like ... how does anyone in their right mind put anyone in single coverage on Gronkowski on the outside? The Seahawks did it in the Super Bowl, and it's probably why they lost the Super Bowl. And the Chiefs did it on Saturday. Granted, Eric Berry is an All-Pro safety, but Gronk made him look like a rookie with a double move up the left sideline for a touchdown that looked all too easy.
So, here's my letter to opponents: I respect that you're actually trying to cover Big Bob, which is not always the case, but for the love of all that is holy, do not single-cover him on the outside.
--James White came up with a humongous 29-yard catch-and-run late in the third quarter to help set up a field goal, and I just keep thinking about his two-year career. He had five catches for 23 yards and nine rushes for 38 yards last year in his rookie season, when he looked entirely tentative with the ball in his hand. And this year, through Week 12 in Denver, he had 13 rushes for 35 yards to go with 12 receptions for 95 yards, scoring a touchdown on the ground and through the air. That was it.
Since then, in six games, White has caught 37 passes for 354 yards and three touchdowns. He's rushed for another touchdown as well.
To me, that is what the "Patriots Way" mumbo jumbo is all about. It's not about superior character or anything like that. It's about a coaching staff that prepares a guy to go from being fourth on the depth chart to playing a significant role without experiencing so much as a hiccup along the way.
--I know everybody in New England wants the Patriots to win the Super Bowl, and I'm always aware of the fact that nobody here celebrates what are now considered to be minor achievements. But, it's always good to keep a historical perspective on things.
With that in mind:
--The Patriots are playing in their fifth straight AFC Championship Game, which is absurd in its own right. But only one other franchise has done that, and it was the Raiders from 1973-77. The Raiders went 1-4 in those games, and the Patriots have already bettered that with their 2-2 mark thus far.
--From 1995-2015, a 20-year span, the Patriots have appeared in 11 AFC Championship Games. In the past 15 years, they've been in 10. In the last 10 years, they've been in seven.
--Over the past 15 years, the Steelers have played in six conference championship games, the Eagles have played in five, and three teams have played in four each. Again, the Patriots have played in 10.
--Bill Belichick has won 23 playoff games as head coach. Tom Brady has won 22. Both are the most all time in their respective jobs by healthy margins. Tom Landry is second among coaches with 20, and Joe Montana is second among QBs with 16.
--Tom Brady also added to his postseason record for touchdowns. He has 55. Montana is second with 45. The next-closest active player is Peyton Manning with 38. Then, it's Aaron Rodgers with 27, Joe Flacco with 25, and Drew Brees with 24. It's going to be very difficult for anybody to catch Brady any time soon.
If the Patriots win next week and advance to the Super Bowl, we'll have plenty of time to dissect exactly how that stands among historical accomplishments. But for now, with the Patriots' making it to the NFL's final four for the 10th time since 2001, there is no denying that it is a remarkable accomplishment.
--There's going to be a lot of Peyton Manning-Tom Brady talk this week. That's fine. Par for the course, really. Even though Manning can't throw the ball farther than 15 yards and is essentially helping the Broncos solely by checking to the right rushing plays at the line, it's still a storyline that people can't resist. It wasn't all that long ago that there was actually a debate as to which quarterback was better, so really, the coverage is just an after-effect of that decade-long discussion.
So while there will be plenty said this week, I'll just end with this:
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