9 Takeaways from Sunday's AFC Championship

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I'm confident in saying that Sunday night's AFC Championship was the most entertaining, non-Super Bowl, New England Patriots game I have ever watched.  It was great theater.  The Patriots came out and executed their game plan about as well as one could hope.  They went on the road, against the top team in the conference, in a place where they have historically struggled, and came away with one of the most satisfying victories in recent history.

There is so much that can be discussed from this game. In honor of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick winning their 9th conference championship, here are 9 takeaways from Sunday's game.

Photo courtesy of Yahoo Sports
1. Offensive Line Dominates

The offensive line wasn’t really an issue all year.  They were a bit inconsistent in the run game; running wild on certain teams but struggling against others.  Outside of a few games, they pass protected well.  However, in the postseason, they have far and away been the most effective line.  That’s now two straight weeks where the Pats line has dominated its opponent.

They have rushed for over 330 yards combined. Part of that is due to how well Sony Michel has run, but there have been some pretty gaping holes that have been opened for him. They have gone up against some very good pass rushers, and managed to keep Brady upright - he was the only quarterback that wasn’t sacked last weekend. 

Against the Chargers, they were aided by a lot of quick passes, and dump offs, negating the prowess of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.  That wasn’t the case this week, at least it didn't feel that way.  The Chiefs have some notable pass rushers as well in Justin Houston and Dee Ford. Although, apparently Ford's ability is aided by the fact that he lines up offsides...too soon?

Either way, the Pats line has been dominant, but are about to face their stiffest test yet of the postseason, and maybe even the entire season in Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.  They have been playing with an attitude that they'll need to bring to Super Bowl 53.  If you don't know what I mean, look up the video of what Trent Brown did to Chris Jones on Chris Hogan's one handed-catch. 

2. Patrick Mahomes is a Star

Mahomes had a phenomenal year and is going to be an incredible quarterback.  I mean, the Patriots limited Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill like no other team had, and Mahomes still kept making plays.  His ability to launch the ball downfield seems effortless.  He had several eye opening plays during the season, and that continued on Sunday. 

The 54 yarder to Sammy Watkins on a big third down early in the third quarter sticks out as one.  He was flushed out of the pocket and just flung the ball 50 yards downfield, on the run, like it was no big deal.  He had another pass where Adrian Clayborn was coming at him, unblocked, and he stood in and threw the ball AROUND him.  He didn’t try to go over the top, he threw a perfect ball around Clayborn and into Watkins’ hands for another key first down. 

However, he also made some key mistakes that, as he gets more seasoned, he won’t make again.  The first came when he overthrew a wide open Damien Williams early, that would’ve tied the game at 7.  Two plays later, he took a sack from Trey Flowers that you absolutely can’t take in that situation.  It took KC out of field goal range and it turns out those 3 points may have been important.  He also took a sack from Kyle Van Noy right before the half, and fumbled the ball.  He was fortunate enough to recover, but one wrong bounce and that could’ve been disastrous for the Chiefs. 

These are mistakes that he'll learn from over time, and likely won't make in that situation again.

3. Questionable Play Calling

I think Josh McDaniels is an excellent offensive coordinator.  He’s not perfect by any means, but he does a great job calling plays for the most part.  He’s particularly skilled at calling for trick plays at the perfect moment.  Just about every time he’s dialed something up, they’ve cashed in.  The double pass against Baltimore in 2014, the flea flicker against Pittsburgh in 2016, the flea flicker against Jacksonville last year.  Even the pass to Brady in the Super Bowl was well-timed, just poorly executed. 

I thought he had another great game on Sunday overall, but he still had a couple of instances where you’re left scratching your head.  It’s easy for me to sit here and say it now, but I questioned these calls initially as well. 

The first was the call on 3rd and goal from the 1, early in the second quarter.  It was a play action that resulted in an interception on what was a poor decision by Brady.  The Pats had been running right through Kansas City in the early going.  They had thrown the ball just twice on that particular drive (three times technically because of the shovel pass to Cordarrelle Patterson). 

Yes, Sony Michel got stuffed for no gain on the play before, but I still think they should’ve gone back to the run on third down with Michel or James Develin, who is a TD machine from the 1 yard line.  Instead, they turned it over, left at least 3 points on the board and gave the Chiefs some life. 

The other play was the 4th and 1, midway through the fourth quarter.  I didn’t mind the play call, so much as the personnel.  I would’ve rather had Michel or, again, Develin with the ball there instead of Rex Burkhead; but I think it’s splitting hairs at that point.  That play was more on Burkhead’s decision to leap/skip, whatever that was.  It was also a nice play by Daniel Sorensen. 

4. Gronk Looked Like Gronk

I don’t know if he flipped a switch, or was just going through the motions during the regular season, but it appears old Gronk has emerged for the postseason.  He was only targeted once in the Divisional round, but was a major force in the run game.  This week, he was a big factor in both, and had some huge catches in crunch time. 

Gronkowski was on the receiving end of a major third down conversion in both the fourth quarter and overtime; both of which were impressive plays.  Maybe he’s playing a bit possessed because he’s planning to move on from the NFL after this season, I don’t know.  All I know is he looks more like the Gronk we’re used to seeing and less like the one we saw during the regular season.  It couldn’t have come at a better time. 

5. Defense Steps Up to the Challenge

Sunday night might’ve been the most impressive defensive effort ever, from a team that allowed 31 points, 24 of which came in the fourth quarter.  It was the second straight time the Patriots defense has come out and slowed down the high-powered Chiefs offense for the entire first half. 

They did something no other team had done this year in shutting the Chiefs out for the entire first half.  No team had even managed to shut them out through the first quarter.  They got off the field on third downs more often than not.  They sacked Mahomes four times.  Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce had 4 catches for just 65 yards combined.  Sure, they gave up their share of big plays, but that’s expected to happen against an offense as potent as this.  They will make some plays. 

Not including the kneel down to close out regulation, the Patriots had five possessions where they failed to score any points.  Of the five Chiefs drives that followed those Patriot drives, the Pats defense held them scoreless on four of them.  That’s something that may be flying under the radar and shouldn’t.  The defense played its tail off on Sunday, don’t let the 31 points allowed fool you. 
6. Key 4th Quarter Stop

Along those same lines, in a game, and a fourth quarter, fueled by offense, there’s a defensive stand by the Patriots that I feel is going unnoticed.  After the Chiefs defense had a monumental stop of its own, on a fourth and one, Mahomes and company took over with the crowd buzzing, and what felt like momentum shifting. 

Then the Patriots defense answered with a massive three and out.  If the Chiefs are able to move downfield and score there, things could’ve played out differently.  Now, as it turns out, the Patriots turned it over on the next possession, and the Chiefs grabbed the lead anyway, but that was a gut check three and the out forced by the Pats that deserves some credit. 

7. Best Defense was Patriots Offense

While the defense played well most of the game, the best defense of the day was New England’s offense.  Kansas City’s quick strike, explosive offense was on full display Sunday night.  The Patriots ran twice as many plays, twice as many first downs, held the ball twice as long, and needed every last play and second of possession.  It still almost wasn’t enough. 

The Chiefs had five scoring drives on Sunday; four of them lasted 5 plays or less.  Meanwhile, every single scoring drive for New England was at least 6 plays.  As a matter of fact, every single Patriot drive in the game, regardless of whether they scored - except for one drive that ended with Brady's second interception - lasted at least 6 plays. 

The easiest way to defend Mahomes is to keep him on the sideline, which the offense did a phenomenal job of.  They sustained drives by converting on 13 of 19 third downs.  It’s how teams used to, and most still do, approach beating the Patriots; keep Brady off the field.  That’s exactly what the Patriots did on Sunday, and it was a major reason they advanced to their third consecutive Super Bowl. 

8. Slow LB's

As well as the defense played overall, a major weakness was still on full display; that being the speed, or lack thereof, of their linebackers.  That part of the game is passing Belichick by.  He still has the old school mentality that you need big, physical linebackers.  That is helpful to a point, but with the speed of offensive skill players now-a-days, fast linebackers are more important than physical ones. 

The Pats struggled to cover Damien Williams out of the backfield Sunday night.  For instance his first touchdown, which was a simple one yard toss. He came out of the backfield and ran towards the pylon.  Dont'a Hightower knew what was coming and followed Williams, he just wasn't fast enough to keep up. 

This is an issue that has plagued this team for a few years now.  It's one that frankly terrifies me heading into the Super Bowl with Todd Gurley on the horizon.  It's a need that should be addressed this offseason.

9. Regular Season Irrelevant

Sunday’s win made the regular season, and everything that happened during it, moot.  The struggles on the road, the collapse in Miami, the disaster in Pittsburgh, taking a risk on Josh Gordon only to lose him two weeks before the playoffs; none of that is relevant anymore.  It may have made the road tougher for New England, but in the end, they are right where they want to be.  Everything that happened over the course of the regular season is now irrelevant.  It all comes down to one game and how they play on that Sunday. 

Side note: If my life came down to a coin flip, I would want Matthew Slater calling it in the air.


Follow me on Twitter - @mcvay34

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Boston Sports Syndicate: 9 Takeaways from Sunday's AFC Championship
9 Takeaways from Sunday's AFC Championship
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