Rex Burkhead plunged into the end zone from two yards out to put the finishing touch on Tom Brady's surgical opening drive in overtime, propelling the Patriots to their NFL-record eleventh Super Bowl appearance. Bill Belichick will lead his team to a rematch of the Super Bowl XXXVI victory over the Rams that jumpstarted the Patriots' 21st century dynasty.
Here's what we learned in New England's labyrinthine 37-31 victory over the Chiefs, which featured four fourth-quarter lead changes and a two-minute-drill touchdown followed by a game-tying, 30-second field-goal drive that ensured both conference championship tilts would reach an extra frame for the first time in NFL history:
- Tom vs. Time has become the most lopsided rivalry in football, with the greatest of all time once again stiff-arming the inexorable march toward retirement. Although Hall of Fame quarterbacks Bobby Layne and Johnny Unitas invented the two-minute drill in the 1950s, Brady has spent the bulk of his career perfecting the clock cheat code and slowing the sands of the hourglass. After directing a six-play, 65-yard drive to take a momentary lead with 39 seconds remaining in regulation, Brady channeled the platonic ideal of the athletic "zone" in overtime, using impeccable ball placement and timing to climb out of three separate third-and-10 pitfalls on the game-winning drive.
Already the most decorated hero in football's pantheon, Brady continues to increase his insurmountable lead over fellow quarterback legends. His latest exploits leave him with 28 more touchdowns, 3,578 more yards, 13 more victories and four more Super Bowl appearances than any other signal-caller in postseason history.
- Echoing his Week 6 performance that featured four second-half touchdowns in a see-saw shootout with Brady, MVP favorite Patrick Mahomes overcame a sluggish start to lead another quartet of expeditions to the end zone after halftime. Matching Brady's late-game magic, Mahomes took control with 32 seconds remaining, showcasing his game-breaking ability with downfield strikes of 21 and 27 yards to set up Harrison Butker's 39-yard field goal and force a fifth quarter. Due to the peculiarities of the NFL's overtime rules, Mahomes was left high-and-dry on the sidelines as Brady marched down the field for the winning score.
- Belichick's post-game comments steered the credit toward his players for executing with legacies on the line, but the plans drawn up by his coaching staff the past two weeks have fashioned two of the most dominant 30-minute sequences in playoff history. Tag-teaming with offensive boss Josh McDaniels and defensive play-caller Brian Flores (expected to be the Dolphins' choice as next head coach), the gridiron's preeminent strategist has overseen an operation that has amassed an astonishing 40 first downs versus 39 total plays for the Chargers and Chiefs in their respective first halves. If not for Sunday's 14-0 halftime cushion, Belichick's troops would not have withstood Kansas City's furious fourth-quarter flurry.
Rams coach Sean McVay has emerged as the poster boy for precocious offensive innovation, with right-hand man Zac Taylor set to take the reins in Cincinnati next month. Wade Phillips is regarded by many as the greatest defensive coordinator of the past four decades. Special teams coordinator John "Bones" Fassel might be the most valuable special teams coordinator in the league today. That said, Belichick's staff takes a backseat to no coaching coven. Much like Super Bowl LII, this year's run for the Lombardi Trophy promises to showcase a compelling battle of wits in the meeting rooms as well as on the sidelines.
- While the NFC Championship Game was haunted by a controversial no-call that will live in Big Easy infamy, the instant-classic AFC title showdown featured a series of game-altering replay reviews. A muffed punt return was overturned on replay review when multiple angles showed just enough evidence that the bouncing oblong spheroid narrowly missed Julian Edelman's gloves before the Chiefs recovered. On the heels of that ruling, the review system upheld one key third-down catch by Chris Hogan and rejected an ensuing Hogan catch that left the Patriots in yet another third-and-10 predicament with the game on the line. Brady's next pass clanged off Rob Gronkowski's hands for an interception only to be nullified by Dee Ford's offsides penalty. Brady dialed Gronkowski's number in the friendlier third-and-5 scenario, setting up the first of Burkhead's two late-game touchdowns with a beautiful 25-yard fade to the door step of the end zone.
- Relegated to past-prime punchline status as his role in the aerial attack evaporated over the past month, Gronkowski reemerged as a legitimate receiving threat with 79 yards on six receptions. Formerly the gold standard at tight end, Gronkowski no longer separates from coverage or rampages through a phalanx of defenders after the catch, but he can still punish man-to-man coverage with his behemoth frame and vice-grip hands. The Rams can't assume Gronkowski will be relegated to bone-jarring blocking duties in a game that may stand as the last of his unparalleled career.
- Burkhead wasn't the only backfield star for New England. A third-down conversion machine, perennial postseason stud James White totaled 72 yards on 10 touches, enabling the Patriots to play keep-away from Mahomes in the early portion of the festivities. Even better, rookie power back Sony Michel carried a career-high 29 times for 113 yards and two more trips to pay dirt -- bringing his two-game postseason total to five touchdowns. This three-headed hydra will do battle with an improved Rams run defense that has shut down the ground attacks of Dallas and New Orleans the past two weeks.
- Undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson reached a stumbling block in his bid to recreate Malcolm Butler's postseason star turn to close out the 2014 campaign. Although Jackson boasted the lowest opposing passer rating of any cornerback this season, per Pro Football Focus, he wore a target on his back Sunday. The Patriots double-teamed Tyreek Hill at the line of scrimmage and assigned top corner Stephon Gilmore to trail Sammy Watkins. That left Jackson in a one-on-one mismatch versus All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce. Jackson ended up surrendering not only his first career touchdown but also Robinson's 27-yard gain that led to Butker's game-tying kick at the end of regulation. Along the way, Jackson was guilty of a pair of pass interference infractions as well as a holding penalty. Hailed as an especially confident young coverman, Jackson will be tested by the Rams trio of Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks and Josh Reynolds in the season's ultimate showdown.