The New England Patriots shook free from their December doldrums on Saturday, leaning on a pass-happy attack in a 27-20 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. The Patriots advance to the AFC Championship Game, where they will face either the Denver Broncos or Pittsburgh Steelers.
Here's what you need to know:
1. They say you need to run the ball to win in the playoffs. Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels disagree. New England called 11 consecutive passing plays on their opening possession, a 80-yard touchdown drive over 4:37 that ended with a eight-yard touchdown catch by Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots ran the ball just 10 times (not counting kneel-downs) against 42 passes. The strategy evoked memories of the Pats' Week 7 win over the Jets, when Brady dropped back on 91 percent of plays from scrimmage.
2. This was a classic "Couldn't Get Over The Hump Game" for the Chiefs. They hung around for four quarters and had multiple instances where they could have really threatened to steal this game. But they could never make the play, whether it was red-zone sputters (there were two in the first half), clock mismanagement (an Andy Reid staple) or missed opportunities on defense (Marcus Peters will see Tom Brady's fourth-quarter pass slip through his fingers in his dreams). If you want to beat the Pats in Foxborough, you can't kick away opportunities. K.C. did it all day.
3. All hail Tom Brady. The Patriots quarterback delivered a vintage performance, completing 13 consecutive passes at one point and finishing with two touchdowns, one rushing score and no turnovers. Brady has now posted a passer rating of 99 or higher in four straight playoff games dating back to last year. Brady showed no ill-effects of his high-ankle sprain, and benefitted greatly from a non-existent Chiefs pass rush. And surprise, surprise: Having Edelman, Danny Amendola and Gronk all on the field had Brady looking like an MVP again.
4. Gronkowski showed up on the injury report with back and knee issues this week, and was rumored to have received an injection in his right knee at a Boston-area hospital on Wednesday. But the All-Pro tight end was his dominant self once the game started, finishing with seven catches for 83 yards and two touchdowns. Gronk is now the NFL's all-time postseason leader in receiving touchdowns by a tight end. Reminder: This is only Gronkowski's sixth pro season.
5. Jeremy Maclin displayed some serious guts playing through a high-ankle sprain, but the wide receiver wasn't himself and it held the Chiefs back on offense. Maclin managed two catches, but Reid and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson were unable to use their No. 1 wideout to his full capability. The Patriots, meanwhile, did a nice job keeping tight end Travis Kelce in check.
6. Once again, Justin Houston (knee) was a non-factor for the Chiefs. The star pass rusher played just eight snaps in the first half and wasn't on the field in the final two quarters. His absence was felt, as Kansas City failed to get in Brady's zip code on many of his 42 throws. It didn't help matters that Brady is the master of getting the ball out of his hands within seconds of the snap.
7. The Patriots didn't have much success getting to the quarterback, either. When Chandler Jones took down Alex Smith with 13 minutes to play in the fourth quarter, it was the first sack for either team. Jones, who started after his "stupid mistake" this week, also forced a key fumble that killed a Kansas City drive deep into Pats territory. Jones left the game in the second half with a knee issue. Linebackers Jamie Collins (back) and Jerod Mayo (shoulder) also exited early.
8. Alex Smith has had some shining playoff moments in his career, but on Saturday we saw the Smith that has frustrated Niners and Chiefs fans for a decade. The quarterback threw a career-high 50 passes and was in dink-and-dunk mode all day long, averaging less than five yards per attempt -- the dreaded Gabbert Zone. When the Chiefs went down two scores in the fourth quarter, it felt like an insurmountable climb for an offense that had to fight for every yard. Credit also goes to the Patriots' unheralded defense, which took away Kelce and left Smith targeting Jason Avant in big spots.
We won't take this away from Smith, though. Eli-like.