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Past Made Present: The Patriots Dynasty Still Owns the AFC

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick followed an all-too-familiar blueprint to outlast the Patrick Mahomes II–led Chiefs and earn another trip to the Super Bowl

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When the Patriots offense took the field at the start of overtime on Sunday in Kansas City, the mood felt familiar. On yet another huge stage, there was Tom Brady, looking to finish off the season’s most exciting upstart team en route to another classic New England playoff moment. It was the ending of Super Bowl LI all over again, and the Patriots’ game-winning drive stuck to the script: Brady and his parade of long-standing teammates marched their way down the field, completing one back-breaking pass after another before a New England running back capped off the drive—and the win—with a short plunge into the end zone. Only this time, swap out a 34-28 Super Bowl victory against the Falcons with a 37-31 AFC championship game triumph over Patrick Mahomes II and the top-seeded Chiefs. With the Pats, the past is the present in perpetuity.

An arctic blast brought a bone-chilling cold to Missouri this weekend, and every breath taken at Arrowhead Stadium created a cloud of steam. Belichick wore so many layers he looked like Joey Tribbiani from Friends: Could he be wearing any more clothes? But the conditions couldn’t have been more fitting. Two decades into the Brady-Belichick era, the Patriots have become the NFL’s White Walkers: the undead, icy horde out to destroy the young, vibrant heroes who rise up to challenge them each season.

This isn’t another complaint about Patriots fatigue. Sure, it would have been thrilling to watch Mahomes—this season’s presumptive MVP and, as he proved again on Sunday, the league’s most exciting player—face the Rams in the Super Bowl and try to avenge his team’s 55-51 Week 11 loss. But for anyone who appreciates football, the Patriots are far from boring. They’re … established. We know them. And their latest win marked every box from the Patriots dynasty checklist that’s become so recognizable in the past 20 years.

That checklist starts with a game plan expertly tailored to exploit an opposing team’s weaknesses while minimizing its strengths. New England succeeded in doing both from the jump in Kansas City. Belichick’s offensive strategy centered on holding onto the ball and limiting chances for Mahomes and the Chiefs’ high-octane offense. That was partially accomplished by pounding the ball on the ground with running back Sony Michel, who racked up an unbelievable 19 carries by halftime and finished with 29 for the game. In all, New England’s backs tallied 47 rushes for 177 yards with four touchdowns.

Even more important than keeping the ball on the ground was controlling the clock, and the Patriots put on a master class in third-down efficiency. They finished 13-of-19 on third down while picking up 36 first downs in total and dominated the time of possession battle 43:59 to 20:53. Much of that success boiled down to Brady becoming the Night King late in the fourth quarter and overtime and finding Julian Edelman for chunk gains whenever the team needed one. Early in the game, though, the Pats jumped out to a 14-0 lead by using a more unorthodox approach. Coming into the AFC championship game, New England had called running plays for back James White on just 16.8 percent of its third-down plays. On Sunday, White converted three such plays in the first 12 minutes of regulation. White added two more third-down conversions in the second quarter and both came through the air. The first, which happened on a third-and-7 with about 11 minutes remaining in the half, was the result of a perfect back-shoulder throw by Brady that beat excellent coverage by Chiefs safety Eric Murray. The second was all White—he hauled in an off-target throw on third-and-5 to keep the Patriots’ second touchdown drive afloat.

New England has been able to stave off regression and outrun leaguewide schematic fads by having Brady and Belichick, but players like White—who step into large roles each season depending on the Patriots’ needs—have also contributed to the Patriots’ unparalleled stretch of dominance. The fifth-year back finished 2018 with a team-high 87 catches (he’d never recorded more than 60 in a season before), and was once again the Pats’ most reliable offensive weapon in the first half against the Chiefs. His collection of third-down conversions was one of the central reasons the Chiefs were held to just 32 total yards in the first two quarters.

The New England defense also did its part to limit Mahomes’s impact. Kansas City had the league’s highest-scoring offense during the regular season (35.3 points per game), but even historically great units have weaknesses, and for the Chiefs, that’s the interior of their offensive line. New England attacked that deficiency all game, sending a barrage of interior blitzes, many that also included line stunts or twists from their linebackers to create even more confusion. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy, in particular, created his share of havoc, finishing with two sacks and an additional quarterback hit. And those numbers don’t speak to just how disruptive he was all evening.

Van Noy was drafted in the second round by the Lions in 2014. After a pair of unforgettable seasons in Detroit, he was traded to the Patriots—along with a seventh-round pick—for a sixth-round pick in October 2016. Two years after being dealt for scraps, Van Noy was the Patriots’ most important defensive player in an AFC championship win.

Belichick has made a career out of refurbishing distressed and forgotten castoffs from other teams, and in that regard, Van Noy wasn’t alone on Sunday. During the 2018 draft, the Patriots dealt a fifth-round pick to the 49ers for offensive tackle Trent Brown, who’d been drafted by San Francisco’s previous regime and didn’t fit into the team’s long-term plans. Days earlier, New England had used one of its two first-round picks on Georgia offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn. But when Wynn suffered a torn Achilles in August, Brown stepped in as the team’s starting left tackle. New England’s offensive line allowed one quarterback hit against a Chiefs defense that finished the regular season tied for the league lead in sacks with 52. Brady aided matters by getting rid of the ball quickly, but late in the game when he needed time on slower-developing third-and-long scenarios, Brown and the rest of the line held up its end of the bargain.

Even as new heroes emerged for New England on Sunday, though, the game’s crucial moments were defined by the Patriots’ mainstays. Edelman was there when Brady needed him most. Throughout the second half, New England had motioned Edelman from his outside alignment into the slot to create a stack with wideout Chris Hogan. That caused traffic at the line of scrimmage, which Edelman used to get quick releases in the middle of the field. The Patriots used that same strategy in overtime, and it gave Brady an easy target for two third-and-long completions that kept the game-winning drive alive. “They were in a lot of man coverage, so any time we were able to use another guy to get clean off the line, that was in our game plan,” Hogan said after the game. Considering his playoff history, Edelman’s impact in this game came as no surprise. But Rob Gronkowski’s was a bit more shocking.

The future Hall of Fame tight end finished 2018 with 47 catches for 682 yards, the lowest numbers of his career in any season when he played at least eight games. By the end of the year, it seemed as though Gronkowski’s legendary run in New England was coming to an end. But not before one final display of what’s made him the greatest tight end ever. With 54 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Brady directed a deep throw to Gronkowski down the left sideline. The tight end went up and outmuscled Eric Berry for a contested catch that set up a go-ahead touchdown for the Patriots. Gronkowski bested Berry again in overtime, this time on a slant from a 3x1 set with Gronk as the lone receiver to the left side. The quick strike picked up 15 yards and converted another third-and-10. Three Rex Burkhead runs later, the Patriots were on their way to their ninth Super Bowl in the past 18 seasons.

After the game, as Brady and Gronk walked through the tunnels of Arrowhead Stadium, Brady—in all his corniness—posted a video on Instagram of the pair strutting to P. Diddy’s “Bad Boy For Life.” The clip was capped with one final message, written in black and white: “Still here.” Like it or not, that’s impossible to deny. On the day that Mahomes and the Chiefs could have ushered in a new era in the AFC, the Patriots followed the tried-and-true recipe that has made them an indestructible villain for the past 20 years. Mahomes will have his day, but for at least one more year, Brady and Belichick are back in the Super Bowl.