By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Almost a year ago to the day, Tom Brady delivered one of his finest pieces of playoff magic. He’ll need a lot more of it on Sunday against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. But this time he needs to pull his latest trick at the toughest road stadium in the National Football League, and with a different-looking set of weapons.
Good thing one of those targets will be Julian Edelman, who came up huge with nine catches and 151 yards against the Chargers in the divisional round. In fact it’s been a while since Edelman, who missed the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL, didn’t elevate himself in January or February. His last playoff game before the win over the Chargers was Super Bowl LI, in which he made “only” five catches for 87 yards – but everyone who watched that game understands the magnitude of the fourth catch he made in that game.
Edelman has played in 11 postseason games since the 2013 season, when he emerged in the post-Wes Welker era as Brady’s most reliable target in the slot. In that span he’s averaged eight catches and exactly 100 yards, and mixed in three touchdowns, including the eventual game-winning score in Super Bowl XLIX against the Seahawks. Only Jerry Rice (!) has more career playoff receptions (151) than Edelman’s 98.
He’s already a lock for enshrinement into the Hall at Patriot Place for his playoff heroics alone.
“He’s such a great player and just a great teammate, competitor and had a great game today,” said Brady after the Patriots outclassed the Chargers 41-28. “He came up big. We needed it and we’ll need it next week too.”
Brady enters this game knowing he can lean on Edelman in times of need. There’s likely to be times that he has to get rid of the ball under duress, as the Patriots are forced to work with silent snap counts in the historically noisy Arrowhead Stadium. With the Chiefs’ pass rushers possibly gaining a step against those, it’ll be that much more important for Brady to be able to find his targets as quickly as he did against L.A., if not quicker.
And even if Edelman has trouble getting open, Brady has another supremely reliable playoff weapon that he can look to on key plays and drives. James White was a focal point of the passing game against the Chargers and figures to get plenty of looks yet again in Kansas City. White reeled in a whopping 15 catches for 97 yards against the Chargers, tying the single-game playoff reception record set by Darren Sproles in the 2011 season. He’s two games removed from his epic performance in the Super Bowl against the Falcons, when he caught 14 passes for 110 yards and scored three touchdowns, including the walk-off in overtime.
It’s our job to get caught up in White’s postseason brilliance. He doesn’t have time for that, only doing his job.
“You’ve got to play your best football at this time of year,” White said earlier this week. “I just try and put my best foot forward, have no regrets, study my opponent as best as possible and just try to put my best performance out there every time I step out there. For us, we just enjoy the opportunity, don’t take it for granted and just play in the moment.”
Also working in the Patriots’ favor is good health, especially on offense. Brady, Edelman, White, Rob Gronkowski, and the offensive line all enter this game off the injury report with no limitations in practice. It’s a major difference from the 2015 season, the last time the Pats had to go on the road in the AFC Championship Game.
“Obviously, you need your best players out there, and the guys that you expect to deliver, you need them playing well,” said Brady on Friday. “The only way to play well is to be healthy. If you have a bad whatever and you can’t do your job – if you’re a runner, run, or if you’re a thrower, throw, or if you’re a blocker, block – I mean, it’s hard to do on one arm or one leg. But, if you can feel good and you can feel like you’re trending always toward feeling your best for Sunday, I think that gives you a lot of confidence.
“Even some of the games we lost this year, I think you come out of those games and you think, ‘Wow, OK. A positive, we didn’t lose anybody.’ I think we’re at this point this year, and we’ve been pretty healthy to this point.”
The Patriots typically execute so well that they make everything look easy, like they did against the Chargers. It really shouldn’t come so easy for them at Arrowhead. The crowd noise changes the way they have to communicate. They haven’t been great on the road or on grass fields this season, in general. You’d think that Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton won’t pull a Gus Bradley, and deploy more man-to-man coverage with his defensive backs while going for pressure up the middle with Chris Jones.
But like all of the Patriots’ road games this season, which have had a lot of below-average grades on offense, it all comes down to execution. If the Patriots can overcome the external factors and execute on the road as well as they have at home, they might make it look easy one more time. They’d be imploding the most persistent narrative of the season – that they’re not a good road team this season – in the process. Who’s willing to bet against them at this point?
Well, some of us technically are. This writer is still picking the Chiefs in a mostly competitive game. But the Patriots most certainly do not suck and it’s safe to bet on Brady not sucking on Sunday. The Patriots likely need another Brady-like masterwork to win this game, and if they get one, it’ll rank among the greatest achievements in a career overflowing with them.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at email@example.com.