Patriots third-down offense defines winning performance in AFC Championship Game
By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Tom Brady and the Patriots found a way to outscore Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. One of them was to never give Mahomes the ball by marching right into the end zone in overtime. But the key to that walk-off drive? The Patriots shredded them on third down.
In fact, third down was perhaps the No. 1 key to victory for the Patriots in Kansas City, and the reason they’re headed to their ninth Super Bowl under Bill Belichick. They went 13-for-19 (68.4 percent) overall in the game, but got more and more efficient and clutch as the game went on.
Tom Brady went 9-for-11 for 119 yards and an interception on third downs in the game, the pick being his ill-advised second-quarter toss into the hands of Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland in the end zone. But more importantly, Brady went 5-for-5 for 86 yards on third downs in the fourth quarter and overtime, including 3-for-3 for 50 yards on the final drive of the game – all three on third-and-10. Brady’s only other third-down incompletion led to one of Ryan Allen’s two punts.
Well, there was no punting in the fourth or OT. Just one championship drive after another. Big plays left and right from Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski. And a redemptive couple of drives for running back Rex Burkhead, who completed his journey from injured reserve to the active roster to the game-winning touchdown.
Even Chris Hogan, who’d struggled all season to find his footing in the offense, stepped up as hugely as he ever has in a Patriots uniform. He made the most impressive singular catch of the game and one of the most important. On a third-and-8, Hogan picked up 11 yards by snagging the ball away from his body with one hand and cradling it in his arms as he dropped to the turf. He barely kept possession and the replays didn’t show the officials quite enough evidence to overturn the call on the field. Hogan admitted that, even though he was on the field and made his own clutch plays, that it’s as stressful for him as anyone.
“These tight games are taking years off my life,” joked Hogan after the game. “I’m just excited for these guys and excited to get back to work.”
If you want to rank the third-down catches by magnitude, arguably the biggest single play of the game was Rob Gronkowski’s 25-yard catch on third-and-5. It came directly after Dee Ford’s offside penalty negated an interception and gave Brady and Gronkowski a second chance. It also gave the Chiefs another chance to stop the Patriots on third down. Instead, Gronkowski reclaimed some of his vintage Gronk magic and helped set up Burkhead’s first of two go-ahead touchdowns in the fourth and OT.
“I’m so proud of Gronk going out there and making crazy plays,” said Edelman after the game. “It was awesome to see the big fella go out and do that.”
The Patriots also dominated third downs early in the game. They faced three third down situations on their opening drive and converted all of them – twice by running it. James White took the handoff for the first three third down runs, and delivered the necessary yardage all three times. So Josh McDaniels can go ahead and thank White for those early conversions, or else he’d be the subject of much discussion for those bold yet successful play-calls.
The only black mark on the Patriots’ third-down record came in third-and-short situations. The Patriots converted just 2-of-5 chances when running the ball on third down and two yards or less. They faced two fourth-and-short situations; Burkhead got wrapped up for no gain on the first, and Michel ran it 10 yards into the end zone on the other.
Short yardage continues to be a source of inconsistency for the Patriots. At this point it’s much easier to be confident that Brady will convert on third-and-long than for smaller gains. But at the end of the day, the offensive line protected Brady and opened up enough holes for the Pats to convert on a ton of key plays. The O-line continued to be arguably the team’s best overall positional group and its most consistently strong performers.
“I mean, it’s a huge part of our offense,” said Edelman when asked about the O-line and running game. “Those hogs – they blocked their tails off tonight. We live and die through them. Sony ran well, Rex ran well, James ran well. We got contributions from everyone.”
Speaking of everyone, credit is due to the Patriots defense too. The Chiefs went 4-for-9 on third down in the game, and two of their stops came on sacks. Trey Flowers’ second-quarter sack of Patrick Mahomes dropped him for a 14-yard loss, which knocked the Chiefs out of field goal range at the time. But it was the third-down offense that truly led the way in those spots.
The Patriots racked up a whopping 36 first downs, 15 by running, 20 by passing. Their constant conversions helped them control the ball, as they finished with a ridiculous 43:59 time of possession compared to the Chiefs’ 20:53 – so that’s 39:07 of possession time in regulation.
Their ruthless efficiency and big-time plays in third down situations played a major role in that stat, as well as the one that mattered the most – the win.
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.