Phil Perry's Patriots AFC Championship Game Report Card
If you've followed along with the Report Card for the last several seasons, you know we don't grade coaches separately.
There's no doubt that a coach or coordinator's individual performance in a given week -- either through their preparation, their plan or their in-game decisions -- can swing an outcome one way or the other. But the evaluation of Patriots coaches can be read through the evaluations of their players as they're laid out here every week.
We break it down by position group, anyway. Emphasis on "group." Coaches included.
That said, this would be a good time to point out the job done by the guys on the sidelines wearing headsets Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. Their plan was masterful, especially early on, and was executed to the point that the Patriots could have realistically led 21-0 going into the locker room at halftime.
What Bill Belichick and Brian Flores did -- slowing down the league's most dangerous offense with creative pressure packages, man-to-man coverages, and timely double-teams on the league's most explosive weapon -- was deserving of high marks. Yes, their defense allowed 31 points in the second half, getting gashed by scheme plays to running back Damien Williams, an illegal pick that wasn't called, and a scramble-drill bomb to Sammy Watkins. But they were in position to win because they had the right plan to start.
What Belichick and Josh McDaniels did -- taking advantage of Kansas City's exploitable run defense (particularly with two-back sets), grinding down the clock, creating and converting manageable third-down situations, controlling the time of possession, and drawing up down-the-field man-coverage beaters in the game's most critical moments -- was deserving of something in the A-range.
The Patriots couldn't make the Super Bowl without on-the-field playmakers. But on the road, against the No. 1 seed, they also couldn't make the Super Bowl without the game of the season from their coaching staff.
Now...onto the rest of the grades.
Tom Brady's placement on his four third-down conversions late in the game -- a fourth-quarter fade to Rob Gronkowski, two dimes to Julian Edelman over the middle, and a deep slant to Gronkowski -- couldn't have been much better. Those throws won the Patriots the game, in essence. He also completed chain-moving conversions to Edelman on well-placed passes early and late in the first quarter, and his back-shoulder throw to James White early in the second was head-shaking stuff. His touchdown pass to Phillip Dorsett wasn't one of his better throws but it didn't have to be as the combination of Dorsett's double-move and Brady's pump-fake put the Chiefs secondary in panic mode. Brady even hit James Develin for nine yards with an accurate throw late. He spread the wealth throughout, and when it mattered he went to his old reliables. The only thing holding this one back was his ugly red-zone pick. Brady's interception off of Edelman's hands and his near-interception off of Gronkowski's hands weren't on him.
RUNNING BACK: A-
White's catch on that third-and-seven back-shoulder pass was nifty. On the next snap, he had a huge gain on a screen. White also showed unfathomable patience on a few of the third-down handoffs he was given when Brady spotted Kansas City's dime package on the field. White did drop a screen pass, something that's happened a couple of times to him lately, but he still ended up as one of the best players on the field for the Patriots offense. Rex Burkhead got stuffed on a fourth-and-one when he looked uncertain about how to approach the line of scrimmage, left his feet, and came up well short. He did, however, catch all four passes thrown his way, and he was trusted with the game's biggest snaps in overtime. Sony Michel, meanwhile, recorded a season-high 29 attempts, picking up 113 yards and two scores. He once again created significant yardage after contact (76) and forced three missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. As a group, the backs averaged under four yards per carry, but they did enough to help set a tone and to keep drives alive that they were worthy of honors consideration here.
The pass that deflected off of Julian Edelman's hands and into the arms of the Chiefs defense was a back-breaker and a grade-killer. Can't ignore just how effective he was late in the game, though. Even when Kansas City defenders were with him in tight coverage, even when he took a couple of big shots over the middle, he held on for monster gains. Chris Hogan's third-down one-handed snag was one he says he knew he had all the way, and a conversion that eventually helped lead the Patriots to their third touchdown. We mentioned Dorsett's route on his touchdown, which was superb, as was his concentration to make the catch through contact. He also had a key role in the overtime drive, helping give Edelman a step out of his stack release to convert on a third-down pitch and catch. Dorsett also threw an illegal pick though and was flagged, which was the offense's only penalty.
TIGHT END: A-
Can't give this group a flat "A" based on the little matter of the season almost ending on a pass off of Gronkowski's mitts, even if that play was wiped from the books thanks to a boneheaded mistake by Dee Ford. Otherwise? This group had what might've been its best game of the season. Gronkowski caught six of his 10 targets for 79 yards and was once again a force as a run-blocker. Sony Michel's fourth-and-inches score was made possible because Gronkowski helped open up a freeway on the left side of the Chiefs defense. Dwayne Allen played 27 snaps and was part of the heavy packages the Patriots continued to throw at Kansas City all night. But the player who helped elevate this grade to where it is was James Develin. He played a season-high 41 snaps, caught a pass, and basically rammed Chiefs linebackers into submission. On Rex Burkhead's game-winner, Develin threw the lead block -- fitting for the guy who opened up a lane for Michel to pick up 11 on the first snap of the night -- and linebacker Reggie Ragland barely put up a fight.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A
Was their execution perfect? Nope. Not in the running game. The Patriots had trouble creating space on a snap-to-snap basis and finished with 3.7 yards per carry. They went 1-for-2 on fourth-and-short handoffs (with the one being a Michel touchdown on fourth-and-inches). But in a game where the Patriots clearly wanted to establish themselves as the more physical, tougher group -- when is the last time you saw a quarterback under center with split backs in the backfield? -- this unit was both of those things. Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney were impactful pullers and Mason, in particular, was a force getting to the second level to cover up Chiefs linebackers. In the passing game, Dante Scarnecchia's group pitched its second consecutive shutout: no sacks. Brady was hit once and pressured seven times. He had the football out quickly all night, not allowing pass-rushers Dee Ford, Justin Houston and Chris Jones to tee off -- but that wasn't the only reason he was kept clean. His protection was sound.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
One of the plays of the game might've been early in the third quarter on a Patriots punt. The Chiefs had just scored to open the half, and New England was forced to boot it away when Jones batted a Brady third-down attempt at the line of scrimmage. Momentum was shifting. But thanks to a head-scratching return by Tyreek Hill and strong coverage from Joe Judge's punt unit -- combined with an illegal block in the back call -- the Chiefs were forced to start their next drive at their own three. Five plays later, Kansas City was handing the ball right back. Stephen Gostkowski had a very good game kicking the football in frigid and at times windy conditions, drilling a 47-yarder in the third and a critical extra point late in the fourth to go up by three. Cordarrelle Patterson had a big-time return for 38 yards that helped set up New England's go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter to give this grade a bump, Keion Crossen had another nice kick-coverage tackle, and Ryan Allen had two punts downed inside the 20. Had it not been for Edelman's near-muff, this mark would've climbed a half-letter.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A-
A couple of sacks... A couple tackles for loss... Eight pressures... Several more plays to help clear space for linebackers to get up through the line of scrimmage and into Patrick Mahomes' personal space... Forty-one yards rushing on 12 carries for a per-carry average of 3.4... This wasn't this group's best day. But it was very good. Trey Flowers had a bad offsides penalty, which allowed Mahomes to float one down the field for a 27-yard gain knowing he had a free play, but he also picked up a critical sack that knocked the Chiefs out of field-goal range in the second quarter. John Simon and Adrian Clayborn made an impact with three pressures apiece, and Simon picked up a sack with a powerful bull-rush off the edge in the third quarter. Malcom Brown played just 17 snaps, but he came up with a big-time stop on third-and-one to help force a Chiefs punt in the second.
This group was busy Sunday. Kyle Van Noy had a night that was a little bumpy but filled with more highs than lows. He was one of the reasons the Chiefs were shut out in the first half, sacking Mahomes twice (for -24 yards!) and getting in on that Damien Williams stuff with Brown to force a punt. He also was flagged for roughing the passer and he appeared to be the responsible party in coverage on Williams' 23-yard catch-and-run touchdown, but he rolled with the majority of the Chiefs offense to the opposite side of the field before the throw. (A bump from Clayborn on Williams would've helped keep the play competitive...) Van Noy was also in coverage for Spencer Ware's 21-yard reception on the game-tying drive at the end of regulation -- though his coverage wasn't bad -- and he was on the scene for Williams' 33-yard catch that helped set up another Chiefs score. On that 33-yarder, there wasn't much the Patriots could've done, though, it seemed. Dont'a Hightower might've been able to help by sprinting to the sideline to try to cut off Williams' angle, but he ran into traffic created by Chiefs receivers in a bunch. Good design by Andy Reid there. Hightower finished with three hurries -- including one that led to Flowers' field goal-wiping sack -- and a quarterback hit. He was also in coverage of Williams on the back's one-yard touchdown reception. Elandon Roberts continues to thrive in his role, playing 17 snaps as part of New England run-stuffing packages. He finished the night with three stuffs.
They'll take a "B" against this group, you'd have to think. Though what transpired in the second half made things much closer than the Patriots wanted. Obviously. Let's start with their No. 1. Stephon Gilmore drew the same assignment he had earlier in the year when these two teams met. Hard to fault him for much. He was on Sammy Watkins for a 54-yard bomb, but Mahomes scrambled on the play and Watkins essentially had the entire field with which to work. Gilmore had no help. Tough to fault him on a play where Mahomes had 6.13 seconds to throw. When the Patriots had Gilmore and J.C. Jackson swap assignments in the second half after Jackson had some issues with Travis Kelce, Gilmore handled Kelce without issue (zero catches, one target). Jackson, meanwhile, had his welcome-to-the-NFL-postseason moment. Make that moments. He allowed 89 yards (four catches on seven targets) and was overpowered on Kelce's third-quarter red-zone touchdown. He was penalized three times -- twice for pass interference and once for holding -- and he ran into Jason McCourty on Watkins' easy fourth-quarter touchdown to go up, 28-24. Now what the Patriots did against Tyreek Hill, however, was a clinic. Because they liked their one-on-ones across the board elsewhere (in large part because of Jackson's late-season emergence), the Patriots doubled Hill 14 times, according to PFF, and he was allowed just one catch for 42 yards. For the most part, it was Jonathan Jones and Devin McCourty chasing Hill all over the field, though on the one catch it was Keion Crossen and McCourty. Jones dropped a pick that could've sealed the game, but his work on one of the league's most dynamic weapons was huge in helping the Patriots advance to Atlanta.