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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Brady, Patriots punch ticket to AFC championship game

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Tom Brady was ready to roll if the Kansas City Chiefs wanted it. Did they? They were riding an 11-game winning streak, but did they really want a piece of Brady?

The New England Patriots’ quarterback, running hot throughout a 98-yard touchdown drive, had just jumped over the goal line for a touchdown. He stayed in the scrum, ready to take on all comers, before Patriots center David Andrews pulled Brady away, still chirping.

The Patriots, who held on for a 27-20 win Saturday afternoon, will play next week in the AFC championship game against Sunday’s Pittsburgh-Denver winner. The Chiefs left this AFC divisional game with a ticket back to Kansas City, a busted winning streak and an offseason to think about where they went wrong.

That shouldn’t take long to figure out. On the same scoring drive, Chiefs safety Dezman Moses slammed into Brady, drawing a personal foul. It was that kind of first half: The Patriots’ Danny Amendola leveled Kansas City’s Jamell Fleming, and the Chiefs figured, hey, hit them right back.

The problem with that strategy is that an angry Brady is a lethal Brady. The man holds a grudge like no one else in the NFL. He wants to win, and he wants everyone else to bleed.

“He’s dangerous when he’s not fired up,” Patriots safety Patrick Chung said. “But tonight? Sometimes you’ve got to get in the fire.”

Throughout the regular season, Brady was motivated and, following an offseason marked by the “DeflateGate” scandal, a quarterback who seemed to play without remorse. He clipped the Steelers, crushed the Jaguars and smoked the Colts, who a year ago this weekend blew the whistle on Brady’s apparent preference for partially deflated footballs.

Brady wasn’t just putting together an MVP-caliber season, leading New England to a 10-0 start and, during that time, averaging 332 passing yards. He was making a point. His teammates couldn’t help but notice.

“We love it,” Amendola said. “We vibe off that. That’s why we love him.”

So Saturday at Gillette Stadium, where home playoff games are cold and intimidating and uncomfortable – especially for the visiting team – the Chiefs essentially dared Brady to bring it on. He directed an 11-play touchdown drive on New England’s first possession, all passing plays from the shotgun.

Three plays after Moses was flagged for roughing the passer, Brady searched for an open receiver. He ran to his right, sprinting toward the end zone; when two defenders sandwiched him at the goal line and the side judge ruled Brady a few inches shy, the 38-year-old quarterback popped up and stalked toward the sideline.

The play was being reviewed, so there was no ball to spike. The Chiefs retreated, so there was no opposing player to chew out. So Brady wrapped an arm around Josh McDaniels, the Patriots’ offensive coordinator, and shook him as he screamed in the coach’s face. “Just a little miscommunication,” Brady said with a chuckle.

McDaniels channeled his quarterback’s rage into a quarterback sneak, so up and over Brady went, and after the touchdown, he kept trying to make his points.

Wanted some, Kansas City? Got some.

“He’s one of those people that, when it’s time to compete, when it’s time to win, he knows how to get things done,” said running back Steven Jackson, who joined the team last month and has learned quickly that Brady never lets up. “He’s demanding more of guys, demanding more of myself.”

The sneak gave the Patriots a 14-3 lead late in the first half. The Chiefs cut the margin to 14-6 by halftime, and a late touchdown made it a one-possession game before Rob Gronkowski, New England’s all-world tight end, sealed the win by recovering Kansas City’s onside kick with a little more than a minute remaining.

It wasn’t a dominant performance, but New England hasn’t been dominant since that 10-0 start.

Injuries have made this perhaps Coach Bill Belichick’s most impressive season, cobbling together solution after solution when left tackle Sebastian Vollmer went down, when New England’s top two rushers went down for the season, when top receiver Julian Edelman hurt his foot, when Gronkowski played through back and knee problems.

The Patriots are nonetheless a fearsome opponent, now one victory from a return to the Super Bowl – their seventh since Brady took over for Drew Bledsoe in 2001 – and the clearest reason is their driven, unsympathetic, unstoppable quarterback.

He worked with an line that wasn’t healthy but healthy enough. Edelman, clearly rusty, was effective after four first-half drops. Gronkowski was the matchup nightmare that has made him one of the best ever (Kansas City tried an outside linebacker on Gronkowski, then a cornerback, then a safety; Gronkowski strolled into the end zone after Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry froze on Brady’s third-quarter pump fake). Belichick, with a first-round playoff bye and two weeks to prepare, kept quarterback Alex Smith on edge. It didn’t help that Chiefs Coach Andy Reid struggled, as he has often, with managing the clock and his team’s timeouts.

Brady, though, just went to work. Nothing scientific or especially creative about what he did. He was surgical and confident before the Chiefs challenged him and relentless afterward. When the job was finished, Brady jogged off the field without expression, heading toward the locker room looking like a man who had just won a fight.

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