FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It has been virtually the same game, week after week, year after year, with only the receivers and the linemen changing, but rarely the results. The precision offense, the pinpoint passes, the timely stops, the critical opponent error, the dagger that slaughters hope.
That pattern has repeated itself for the New England Patriots since 2001, in the regular season and the playoffs, in memorable games and more rudimentary ones. It did again Saturday afternoon, with a 27-20 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs that turned -- stop if you've heard this before, and you surely have -- on Tom Brady's nearly flawless game, on an excruciating Chiefs turnover, a few mental mistakes and baffling clock management. The Patriots are going to their 10th AFC Championship Game with Brady and Bill Belichick and their fifth in a row, an absurd testament to their excellence and consistency. You could pull up almost any game tape from the last 15 years and find some of the very same elements that were visited upon the Chiefs threaded throughout the rest of this remarkable era. It is like a game of Concentration, except that almost every game you could cue up is a match for every other one.
Except, that is, for the six weeks this season when the Patriots finally appeared vulnerable -- when the offense stumbled, when the passes fell incomplete, when Tom Brady was under duress, when the errors accrued on the New England side, and so did the losses. For the first 10 weeks of the 2015 season, the Patriots were that familiar, relentless juggernaut. But when they lost four of their final six games, with the pieces that surround Brady mostly on the bench, battered and bruised and desperately rehabbing, there seemed finally to be daylight in the AFC for another team to slip past the Patriots.
This week was one of the weirder ones for the buttoned-down Patriots. Belichick showed up with a black eye. A star defensive player, Chandler Jones, had an odd medical situation in which he appeared semi-clothed at a local police station. And Rob Gronkowskiwas dealing with knee and back issues and was expected to be limited. If ever the Patriots might have been caught, it was now.
Julian Edelman was one of those key missing pieces. He missed seven games nursing a broken foot, and in his absence, we learned that he is as integral to the rhythm of the Patriots' offense as Gronkowski. Without him, Brady's targets were limited, and defenses could focus on Gronkowski. With receivers unable to get open, Brady was unable to get the ball away as quickly as he usually does, and a shaky offensive line was exposed, leaving Brady open to battering.
On Saturday, Edelman returned, and with Gronkowski on the field as well, Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell and James White were forced down the list of options. Brady went to Edelman immediately, on the second offensive play of the game. Then again. Later to Gronkowski. The first drive of the game was the lightning bolt striking the rest of the field, a crisp, efficient, no-huddle, passes-on-fire drive that was a reminder of what the Patriots really are, not what they were. Brady was releasing the ball so quickly that the Chiefs' vaunted pass rush -- their only real advantage over the Patriots -- was negated. Except for one quarterback hit, the Chiefs never got close enough to smell Brady's aftershave. A defense that, during Kansas City's 11-game winning streak had yielded an average of just 11.6 points per game, was shredded.
"You get Danny Amendola, Gronk, you've got three guys in there that are good players, and there are certain combinations that you can do with them, and they do a nice job with it," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "The last couple of games they had run the ball quite a little bit, and this one here, they came out and threw almost every down in the first half. I'm not sure they ran it one or two times."
In fact, the Patriots ran seven times in the first half and just 14 times in all, versus 42 pass attempts. Balance is nice in theory. Better is an offense that hums with its familiar rhythm. Edelman was targeted 16 times and caught 10 passes for 100 yards. Gronkowski caught seven for 83 and two touchdowns.
The pattern had been set: The Chiefs would fail to finish drives with touchdowns. At the end of a 98-yard drive, Brady took off on a 10-yard run from the 11-yard line, diving for the goal line -- "Anytime the Clydesdale gets running, the crowd goes crazy," Edelman said. The next play, he scored on a quarterback sneak that everybody in the stadium knew was coming, and which the Chiefs were powerless to stop. Knile Davis would fumble.Eric Berry would bite on a fake and let Gronkowski go right by him for an uncontested touchdown reception. And Reid would mangle the clock in the fourth quarter.
Edelman limped to his locker, and as he sat to get dressed, he laughed and said, as much to himself as to the reporters waiting for him, "You almost forget how you feel after a game."
He did not mean that in a good, celebratory way. He meant the aches and pains he felt, both physical and mental. He was annoyed by the three drops he had early in the game, which he attributed to him trying to go too fast, to turning to make a play before he even caught the ball. But he said he felt comfortable throughout the game, and despite a Boston Herald report said that Edelman was spotted headed to the X-ray room -- he said he was not allowed to talk about that -- he said he would be fine to play next week.
"It's tough for every player to go through injuries," Edelman said. "You see your team playing without you. It's almost hurtful. It's a battle for every guy. It was a tough road, but that road is over."
Edelman said he was never given an exact timetable for a return when he was injured, but the Patriots had always been optimistic he would be ready for the playoffs. In their first game, it was clear how much the rest of the postseason hinges on his ability to go again and again. For 15 seasons, you could count on games like Saturday's from the Patriots. To do it, the Patriots have to continue to count on Edelman.
"Everyone is sore," Edelman said when asked about how he said he would play all-out, without worrying about reinjuring his foot. "I finished the game. I feel good enough to go. If it goes, it goes."