New England Patriots

Jan 20, 2019; Kansas City, MO: New England Patriots running back Rex Burkhead scores the game-winning touchdown during overtime against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game at Arrowhead Stadium. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 20, 2019; Kansas City, MO: New England Patriots running back Rex Burkhead scores the game-winning touchdown during overtime against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game at Arrowhead Stadium. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

It would’ve been hard to find anyone in New England not wondering at the time: why did Rex Burkhead get the ball on fourth-and-1?

The Patriots running back was tasked with picking up less than a full yard when Bill Belichick went for it on fourth down, as the Pats looked to add to a 17-14 lead. Instead Burkhead got wrapped up by Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen before he could reach the line, giving the ball back to Kansas City. The play essentially sparked the wild chain of events that ensued in the final nine minutes of regulation.

But Burkhead was a big part of those events. Earning himself more carries over the course of the game amid periodic struggles by rookie Sony Michel, Burkhead responded after the fourth-down stop with 36 yards on his final eight carries, including the Patriots’ final two touchdowns of an instant classic 37-31 win that sent them to Super Bowl LIII. Burkhead walked the Patriots off with a four-yard burrow through the plane of the goal line, benefitting from just the latest great lead block from fullback James Develin.

“Usually when you follow James, good things happen,” said Burkhead after the game. “So I was just trying to do the best I could there – great job blocking up front.”

Burkhead’s emergence late in the game helped make up for the Chiefs run defense clamping down on Michel in the middle two quarters. The rookie got off to a great start with seven carries for 32 yards and a touchdown on the Patriots’ opening drive. He scratched his way to 28 yards over his first nine carries of the second half, until completing his own redemption story. Faced with a gotta-have-it fourth-and-inches from the 10-yard line down 21-17, Michel didn’t get the yard – he got 10, and the Patriots’ first of three go-ahead touchdowns in the final 3:35 of regulation and overtime.

Ultimately, Michel got rewarded for his perseverance with the late TD, his second of the game and fifth in just two career playoff games.

“That’s part of football,” said Michel. “There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs throughout the game. It’s all about just playing your game, continuing to compete, continuing to execute, and hoping things fall your way.”

The more important thing for the Patriots’ running game isn’t who toted the rock, but how their overall execution helped the offense drain the clock and move the chains. The Pats dominated time of possession with an outrageous 43:59-20:53 advantage, and that’s due in part to how they ran the ball. Michel picked up four first downs on his own in the first half, which helped contribute to the Patriots shutting out the Chiefs over the first 30 minutes.

And fortunately, Burkhead stepped up and executed as well as anyone when it truly, finally mattered. For a back who spent most of the season on injured reserve with a neck injury, it’s quite the achievement to end up scoring the final two touchdowns of one of the biggest wins of the Brady-Belichick era.

“It’s been a crazy season,” said Burkhead. “I wouldn’t go to battle with any other guys than the guys on this team. It’s such a blessing and privilege to be able to compete with them, go to work with them every single day, and to get another chance at the Super Bowl.”

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 matthew.dolloff@bbgi.com.