KANSAS CITY -- In the Grand Central Station chaos of the AFC Championship postgame, Tom Brady broke from his embrace with Josh McDaniels and opened his arms to Bill Belichick.
Brady wrapped the 66-year-old coach up tight. Belichick, who’s spent almost a third of his life with Brady as a player, pupil, punching bag and prized possession, roared up into Brady’s face, “What a f****** game! What a f****** game!”
A few feet away, Duron Harmon was screaming at Rob Gronkowski, “THEY SAID YOU WAS WASHED! THEY SAID YOU WAS WASHED!”
Julian Edelman, stoic as coaches and teammates clapped him on the shoulders, kept saying, “We need one more now. We still need one more.”
Brady’s backup, Brian Hoyer, fist-bumped a reporter and asked, “How’s that cliff?”
Shakespeare would shake his head at the tragi-drama-comedy that was this game, this season, this dynasty for two decades.
🏈AFC CHAMPS -- AGAIN!
On a frozen field that was the site of Brady’s first living wake back in September of 2014, the 41-year-old defending league MVP Brady beat back the challenge of soon-to-be MVP Patrick Mahomes.
Belichick will now chase his sixth Lombardi in his ninth Super Bowl as Patriots head coach. His win broke the heart of his good friend Andy Reid who had home field, an array of incredible players and now also has a 1-6 record in Conference Championships.
The Brady-Belichick hug put an “All’s Well that Ends Well” coda on the drama that bubbled beneath all through 2017 and into the 2018 offseason.
For everyone who said that all that stuff wouldn’t matter in the end anyway and that the Patriots would be back in the Super Bowl … nailed it.
To get to Super Bowl LIII -- where nobody but New England wants them -- all their main protagonists had mini-dramas unfold against the Chiefs.
Brady threw an end-zone pick in the first half that hung around all game like the stink from a bad cigar.
Belichick passed up a field goal in the fourth when the Patriots led 17-14. That decision was dicey but defensible. Running Rex Burkhead who did something between a plunge and lurch and didn’t get it? Less defensible.
Edelman, who survived a nearly-fateful decision to almost field a bouncing punt (he was found not guilty by replay), was in an unfamiliar spot as the cause of adversity when - two plays after the punt – he had a catchable pass from Brady pong off his hands and turn into an interception that the Chiefs turned into their first lead of the game.
Gronkowski, that tortured tight end, had a third-and-10 pass from Brady pong off his hands with a minute left. That was picked off. He was let off the hook by an offsides call on the Chiefs.
Then came all the atonement.
🏈AFC CHAMPS -- AGAIN!
After the pick, Brady hit Gronk for 25 yards to set up a 4-yard Burkhead touchdown run that put the Patriots ahead.
In overtime, the Patriots found themselves facing third-and-10 three different times. On the first, Brady hit Edelman for 20. On the next, Brady hit Edelman for 15. On the last, Brady hit Gronkowski for 15.
And about that point, with the Patriots at the Chiefs 5, it was like the Chiefs just said, “Damn. If they want it so bad, they can have it.”
So now it’s on to Atlanta and on to a meeting with the Los Angeles Rams, a team that was gifted a win by the officials in New Orleans on Sunday in the NFC Championship.
This will be fun. First off: California. New England.
Second, the revulsion we feel for the Lakers can neatly be transported to the Rams the same way it was in October when the Red Sox played the Dodgers.
And since they’re still the Rams, we can dredge up the dynasty the Patriots killed in New Orleans in Super Bowl 36. They haven’t gotten over that yet just ask Marshall Faulk if you see him somewhere.
The Rams have a square-jawed, bug-eyed, appropriately-unshaven, moussed-up coach who’s equally charming and talented. The Patriots have Bill Belichick.
The Rams spend like wild for free agent talent. The Patriots generally don’t.
There’s the quarterback age thing.
But there’s a parallel too. If the Patriots were -- in the minds of dummies -- launched by a questionable call in the Snow Bowl 17 years ago this weekend, could the Rams be launched in a similar fashion?
There’s time to plumb all of that and, sadly, not nearly enough to digest what happened here on Sunday.
🏈AFC CHAMPS -- AGAIN!
A week after thinking circles around the Chargers, the Patriots big-brained the Chiefs in a similar way. In our pregame, I theorized that this game could wind up alongside the 1990 Bills-Giants Super Bowl and the 2001 SB36 over the Rams as testaments to Belichick’s coaching ingenuity.
For 30 minutes, it was. The Patriots borrowed their offense from the early 70s Dolphins, running, running, running and bleeding clock. Defensively, they played man-to-man everywhere and went after Mahomes with extra rushers which was the football equivalent of juggling grenades.
The Patriots went into halftime with a 14-0 lead that felt precarious. It took the Chiefs four plays to slice it in half.
When the Patriots got it to 17-7 in the third, Kansas City finally kicked it in. They scored 24 points in the fourth quarter with Reid drawing up some outrageously taxing route combinations to free guys up for Mahomes.
You knew the Chiefs onslaught was coming. Between the 2017 opener and Week 6 this year, the Chiefs had put up 59 points on the Patriots in the second half. This time they put up 31.
But both times the Chiefs got the lead, the Patriots hitched up their pants and waded back in with efficiency that seemed to evaporate during halftime.
Adding spice to all of it was the officiating. What NFL game would be complete without it?
The Patriots got a favorable roughing the passer call against KC that extended a drive. It was minor compared to a whack Trey Flowers hit Mahomes with. The punt that nearly hit Edelman was a bullet dodged by replay. And the offsides call that erased the interception with a minute left was something Reid promised to “look at.”
But the issue with all of those was the timing. The calls weren’t wrong. They were just big. And they broke the Patriots way.
So there will be clucking about that and bizarro accusations that the league favors the Patriots when we have a couple of confiscated draft picks and million-dollar fines as proof otherwise.
Table all that too.
Because if this season is the last dance, roundup, rodeo, waltz, whatever for the Patriots as we know them, then they are going where they belong to play the team that it started against. Can’t make it up.
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