FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — New England tight end Rob Gronkowski said the Patriots would take the night to enjoy it. Safety Devin McCourty said it would be closer to just a few hours of celebration.
However long the Patriots players planned to relax after their dominating 41-28 divisional-round win over the Chargers on Sunday, this much is clear: A very good Kansas City Chiefs team is waiting in the AFC championship game.
New England needed a field goal from Stephen Gostkowski in the waning seconds to slip past the Chiefs 43-40 in one of the wildest games of the regular season in Week 6. Tom Brady had one of his best games of the season in the Oct. 14 victory over Kansas City, throwing for 340 yards and a touchdown and running for another to earn his 200th career victory as starting quarterback.
All of it was needed on a night in which counterpart Patrick Mahomes rallied his team from a 24-9 halftime deficit, throwing for 352 yards and four touchdowns in what was the Chiefs’ first loss of the season and his first as a starting quarterback.
Now comes a rematch against a Kansas City team that oddsmakers have installed as an early favorite. It will be rare air for the Patriots.
Sunday’s win over the Chargers sent the Patriots to the conference title game for the eighth straight season. It will also be the 13th conference championship game appearance by the Patriots during the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era.
McCourty said despite their unprecedented run and performance Sunday, nobody in the Patriots locker room believes they can just show up and win at Arrowhead Stadium.
“You go to eight straight AFC championship games, you’re in the playoffs 10 years in a row, you kind of get in a mode like it’ll keep happening, it’ll be there,” McCourty said. “But this is a special group, and I think we’re starting to realize that we have one opportunity to try to take advantage of everything that’s in front of us.”
New England got three first-half touchdowns from rookie Sony Michel to set the early tone against the Chargers. He finished with 129 yards rushing, his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season.
The Patriots scored touchdowns on their first four possessions, building a 35-7 halftime lead.
Buoyed by the run game, Brady was in vintage form at age 41, completing 34 of 44 for 343 yards and a touchdown. He improved to 8-0 as a starter against Philip Rivers, who drops to 1-8 against New England all-time.
Afterward, Brady acknowledged that he heard the voices this season who doubted the Patriots and thought “we can’t win any games.”
Asked if he thought the win might have quieted those voices, he simply smiled and paused.
“I just like winning,” he said. “I just like winning.”
The win was the Patriots’ 35th in a playoff game, tying the Cowboys for second all-time. With one more win, New England will tie Pittsburgh for the most postseason wins in NFL history.
Meanwhile, it will be the Chiefs’ first trip to the AFC title since 1994 after they dispatched the Colts 31-13 on Saturday.
“I think if you’re not from here, you don’t know,” said Chiefs receiver Xavier Williams, who grew up a short drive from Arrowhead Stadium. “People have been waiting for a long, long time.”
The Chiefs starting quarterback back then was Joe Montana, in the twilight of his career after winning four Super Bowls with the 49ers. Kansas City is hoping their homegrown, MVP favorite Mahomes, can take the Chiefs to their third Super Bowl berth — and then their first title — in nearly a half-century.
“We’re such a different team,” said Mahomes, who threw for 278 yards while running for a score. “We have such young players. We have such confidence we’re going to win every single game.”
Only the Patriots — winners of the last two AFC championship games and five-time Super Bowl champions —stand in their way. That didn’t keep Chiefs coach Andy Reid from making clear the team’s ultimate goal.
“We have two more. Two more,” Reid said after Saturday’s win. “We are going to take it one at a time here, which is very important as we go.”