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Knee Jerk Reactions to the AFC Championship Game: Patriots vs. Chiefs

Things to consider while observing the super blood wolf moon by appeasing the gods. With a GOAT sacrificing Chiefs:

–This is what it’s like having an emotional attachment to the New England Patriots in the 21st century. Along with the blessings of all the winning comes the curse of it never being easy. Where your heart, your digestive system and all your reproductive organs are put into a meat grinder, pressed into a patty and then fried. In the end, the victory burger is delicious, but the price of enjoying it is going through the pain of making it.

–I mean, how many times was this game, this season, and maybe this dynasty over? Rex Burkhead being stopped on a 4th & inches. Julian Edelman’s muff/non-muff. Followed immediately by the interception through his fingers. The interception off Rob Gronkowski’s hands, negated by Dee Ford lining up with his entire upper half across the line of scrimmage. The blatant pick on JC Jackson that wasn’t called. And so many 3rd & 10s in crunch time I lost count. If they’d lost, I wouldn’t even bother. I’d just repress the memories. Cram them deep down inside of me alongside all those losses to the Manning brothers and the memories of those older bullies at camp who threatened to give me a pink belly, never to be thought of again. But instead I’ll enjoy watching those plays over and over this week. Because being a veteran Pats fan means knowing that you ALWAYS set your DVR to extend the recording an extra hour at least. Only noobs had their recordings end right before the Malcolm Butler interception.

–I try to never start these Knee Jerks with Tom Brady, because it’s too obvious a choice. But I’d be derelict in my duty if I started anywhere else. How many game winning postseason drives will it take to end any and all discussion that he’s not only the best there ever was, he’s the best team sport athlete of all time? Because in last night’s game he produced three. One with 3:30 left in the game, one with 36 seconds to go and then overtime. On the road. In one of the noisiest venues since Thunderdome. Supposedly washed up and at the end of his career. Reportedly all pissy toward his coach. Allegedly mad about how he has nobody to throw it to. And rumored to be more interested in Facebook videos and his massage parlor business to make it to non-mandatory practices back in April which was not only going to cost him games, it was the “rift” that was going to end this dynasty once and for all.

–And how did he do when the AFC title was on the line? Engineered go-ahead drive after go-ahead drive. He recognized Kansas City was playing straight up man coverage and kept putting the ball in spots where it would either be a huge play or safely incomplete. He completed seven passes on the final two possessions to three different targets and every one of them was for 10 yards or more. He made presnap reads and audibles and sold play actions and threw the ball away smartly when nobody bit on the fleaflicker. He did everything you could possibly ask and sent the Advanced Stats guys who don’t believe in Clutch scrambling to find a Unified Field Theory to quantify Tom Brady. Good luck with that, nerds.

–Brady found Gronk, who has essentially been a glorified and highly paid third tackle down the stretch this season, over arguably the best safety in the game. It was a ballsy throw and Gronk made a spectacular catch, pulling the ball in over Berry’s helmet the way you pull a quarter out from behind a little kid’s ear. He worked it to Chris Hogan at the boundary on out routes against Kendall Fuller. He repeatedly hit Edelman on slot options (SLOP) where it’s a slant unless you run into coverage, then break outside (“Slant until you can’t”). But they stayed with outside leverage and he gashed the middle of the field, once against Fuller and then against Chavarius Ward. And with the exception of one pass slightly behind Cordarelle Patterson, he was hitting them with laser-guided missiles. In his career, Brady has had more accurate throws in big moments than Mariano Rivera, and these were some of his best.

–But saying Brady played great (aside from that end zone pick, which proved once again that only Allah is perfect) is stating the obvious. Like saying the kid with the 4.0 whose taking STEM classes at the college did really well on his Science Fair project. We need to acknowledge that the quiet kids who sit in the back row have been acing all their tests lately. The offensive line has been the Patriots best unit for weeks now. Physically overpowering front-7s at the point of attack while giving Brady all the time he needs to go four-deep through his progressions. Like with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram last week, they snapped their fingers and turned the dual pass rush threat of Dee Ford and Justin Houston into space dust. That’s a front that led the NFL in sacks, and Brady was barely ever hurried, let alone hit. That’s due in part to the blitz pickup by the backs, James White in particular. But mostly because Marcus Cannon and Trent Brown won the one-on-one battles virtually the entire night. I hope they re-sign Brown because he’s been a godsend. But that’s a discussion for another month.

–Speaking of month, in the Kingdom of Thorntopia, I will make one change to our calendar. And that will be to move Martin Luther King Day back two weeks. To the day after the Super Bowl. We just got the kids back to school from Christmas break and now they’re all home in the dead of winter with nothing to do. America needs this holiday. Just not right now. We need it the day after our most sacred secular holiday so we can treat our hangovers and clean the queso dip out of the rugs. MLK was from Alabama, he must’ve loved football, so I’m sure he’d appreciate the move. So it shall be done. All hail our benign despot, Jerry I.

–I loved the game plan coming in. The Pats went Jumbo right from the beginning, with 22-personnel behind James Develin and Dwayne Allen and outmanned one of the weakest run defenses in the league, just as I’d hoped. Power I’s, offset I’s where Sony Michel would take a jab step to Develin’s side to get the front flowing in one direction then cut back against the grain. Michel running behind a Gronk kickout block on Breeland Speaks to get it down to the one and then following Jimmy Neckroll in for the score.

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–That opening drive was a Masterclass in how to take a noisy crowd out of a game. One of the reasons Belichick always defers on the road is to avoid getting the crowd when they’ve been waiting all week for this moment and they’re all hopped up on goofballs. Instead he’ll take them to start the 3rd, when half of them are still in line for concessions or taking a leak. Because 40,000 empty seats can’t mess with your snap count. The next best alternative is a long, sustained, clock killing drive with six 1st downs that ends with a touchdown. They never seemed as loud again, even when the Chiefs had all the momentum.

–I’ll have to watch the game again to figure out exactly what adjustment Kansas City made to take away those inside runs. But as far as all those long 3rd downs the Pats had to convert, there’s your problem, lady. I suspect they went big and packed the middle with a lot of Xavier Williams and Derrick Nnandi, but I’m not sure. What I am sure of is this Autobot offense Josh McDaniels created transformed into like four different shapes. First it was the power run game. For a while they were running out of 1-back sets and passing out of 2-backs. Then they relied heavily on James White screens. It was eventually able to attack through the air outside the numbers and then start audibling to inside zone runs with Rex Burkhead, as Michel stopped seeing the field, even after going over 100 yards. Good luck game planning against that, Sean McVay.

–I like to say the Patriots displayed a lot of physicality, but that’s me. If it was Tony Romo, he’d say they displayed a lot of physicalness. And I’d say it over and over again, with no one from CBS reminding him it’s not a word. Romo is proving once again that like his quarterbacking, he’s more of a regular season announcer.

–White is developing this weird habit of making insane catches, spinning at full speed, like me when I was carving a legend on the dance floors of Boston, reaching around to haul in tough throws, then dropping little screens and checkdowns that hit him between the “2” and the “8.” He’s like your trivia partner who answers an impossible question about some obscure South American river but can’t recognize the theme from Seinfeld. I can’t figure it out, I can only suggest Brady start aiming for his socks or two yards behind him as a matter of course.

–You start with minicamps and OTAs in the spring. Sometimes work on passing drills with your quarterback at his ranch in Montana. Hit training camp in the third week of July. Play 16 games. With countless practices, film study, meetings and sessions with the training staff. Then the whole season comes down to a ball bouncing a millimeter over a punt returner’s thumb and the play is decided by zoomed in, pixelated closeups that look like they were shot with the shaky cam from Blair Witch. One, I don’t know how guys can put in all that work knowing how arbitrary it is. Two, it’s thoughts like that and games like last night’s that make me wish I was just into art or poetry or theater or something. This is madness.

–I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to talk about the defense because for much of this one, it felt like 2001-04 all over again. They played a lot of Cover-1 robber with Jonathan Jones in place of Duron Harmon, dropping the safeties down and blitzing like Brian Flores was holding a Madden controller. The linebackers were active, especially getting pressure from the edges. Patrick Mahomes escaped a lot because that’s doing Patrick Mahomes things. But typically when he did, he was escaping backwards, 15 yards deep and forced to throw quite a few balls away. By his standards, anyway.

–Mahomes was never better than that drive at the end of the 3rd/start of the 4th. Scrambling for 9. Running for a 1st. A checkdown to Damien Williams. That preposterous sidearm completion under Adrian Clayborn’s arm like he was turning a double play. Then he hits Williams again perfectly in stride for 33 yards, followed by leading him to the pylon for the score. Obviously his deep passes like the bombs to Sammy Watkins (54 yards) and Tyreek Hill (42) are the sexy ones we’ll all remember. But show me a guy who can do multiple things to keep the chains moving and I’ll show you a guy who’ll be having epic battles against Brady for the next 15 years.

–For the most part, it was Stephon Gilmore iso’d on Watkins and JC Jackson on Kelce, with Jones in bracket coverage on Hill with a safety. That left Dont’a Hightower on Williams, which is a mismatch the Chiefs exploited. But if I’m choosing the form of the destructor, out of those options, Williams is the Mr. Stay Puft I’m taking my chances with too.

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–By the 4th, when the Chiefs had figured it out and were pretty much scoring at will, the Pats had switched and then it was Gilmore on Kelce with Jackson on Watkins. And Mahomes started targeting Jackson. Wisely, because in the ever increasing NBA-ification of pro football, Jackson got into foul trouble on rookie calls. I’ll concede the defensive hold that negated the Patriots fumble recovery. But the long pass interference was horseshit. A reputation call. Exactly the kind of thing you get away with if you’re say, Patrick Peterson or Aqib Talib. And that non-call on the pick where Jackson got stopped dead in his tracks leaving Watkins all alone would’ve been the worst call of Conference Championship Sunday any year but this one. I feel your pain, Saints.

–But that’s what we have as a result of over-officiating in this offensive paradise we’ve built to satisfy Bill Polian’s utopian vision. We barely understand what a catch is, but haven’t the first goddamned clue what PI is. Jackson and Watkins are rubbing elbows up the sidelines, flag. Philip Dorsett gets assaulted in the end zone, no flag. Don’t let the fact Dorsett made the catch of the year for this team and the biggest play of his Patriots career let the officials off the hook on that one. I’m not claiming for a hot second they were out to stick it to the Patriots. Just that a toxic blender drink of overly complicated rules mixed with incompetence is poisoning the game.

–I do appreciate the announcements that “The game clock is correct.” Those are very reassuring for those of us who question reality, believe in time as a non-linear abstract or who’ve experienced lost time due to alien abductions. So thanks, Clete Blakeman. You can’t stop the game for enough of those.

–This Week’s Applicable Move Quote: “Why do you think the same five guys make it to the final table at the World Series of Poker EVERY YEAR? What, are they the luckiest guys in Las Vegas? It’s a skill game, Jo.” – Mike McDermott, Rounders

–Malcom Brown’s stop where he sliced through (I think) Andrew Wylie to drop Williams on 3rd & inches was the most important play we’ll never remember. His contract is up and if he should leave New England with yet another ring, he’ll have been worth the 1st round pick just for that alone.

–The defensive play we WILL remember is Trey Flowers sack that knocked the Chiefs out of field goal range. He simply defeated Mitchell Schwartz with hand-fighting. No stunts or twists. Just mano y mano victory. And since the Patriots went right down and scored on the subsequent possession, that ended up being a 10-point play. It’s hard not to see how that worked out and not think of him doing the same think to the Falcons when they had the ball on the Pats 23 in Super Bowl LI. Aaron Donald will get all the attention over the next two weeks, and deservedly so. But Flowers has put together a resume of huge moments that should get more credit than it does.

–You go into a game against KC expecting Andy Reid to mismanage his clock or his timeouts and he never fails to let you down. By the end of that drive in overtime, his defense looked like they needed life support and were ready to sign the Do Not Resuscitate forms. But he went into the offseason with all three timeouts. It’s as if he thinks he can save them up like pizza gift cards.

–Duron Harmon barely saw the field. Your starting free safety who’s played as many snaps as anyone all year was basically a healthy scratch. He didn’t sob on the sidelines during the pregame presentation. Is anyone going to talk about that blatant and uncaring disrespect for his feelings all spring and summer or are we good?

–I’m exhausted. Mentally, emotionally and physicalnessly. I’ve been pushing back against the negativity and calling shenanigans on the End of the Dynasty talk for the entire calendar year of 2018 and beyond. But l’m sure I’ll be getting all sort of apologies and “You were right all along, Old Balls” from everyone for the next couple of weeks. And that’ll get me ready for the Rams.

–We’re Onto Super Bowl LIII.