By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
NOTE: This is the second installment in a series dedicated to the “forgotten” playoff games from the Patriots’ 20-year run as kings of the NFL.
The Game: 2015 Divisional Round vs. Kansas City Chiefs
Location: Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.
Mention the 2015 season to a Patriots fan, and that person is probably going to get mad at you. Very, very mad.
The reasons for that reaction would be numerous, as the 2015 Patriots got out to a 10-0 start before kicking away games at Denver (against Brock Osweiler), against the 4-7 Eagles, at the Jets (kicking off in overtime?), and of course, at Miami to end the regular season. As a result of that completely unnecessary 12-4 record, the Patriots ended up having to travel to Denver for the AFC Championship Game, which they lost (despite Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski combining forces in the final minutes for one of the most dominant displays in sports history.)
Considering how little trouble the Broncos ended up having in Super Bowl 50 against the Panthers, that late-season slide is remembered as a rare instance of a Bill Belichick team coughing away a championship without being forced to do so.
And so, some people remain mad.
But sandwiched in the midst of that rage and sadness was one of the most forgotten postseason games of the Belichick/Brady era, an afternoon that made us all take a step back and wonder if that 2-4 close to the regular season was meaningless. It made us ponder the idea that the regular-season Patriots and the playoff Patriots were two entirely different entities. And so, it was a day that rekindled hopes for the Patriots to become the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls since … the Patriots did it a little over a decade earlier.
This was a divisional round game against Andy Reid, Alex Smith, and the Kansas City Chiefs.
The 2015 Patriots came out of the gates hot and fizzled late. The Chiefs were the exact opposite.
Andy Reid’s team had one of the most ridiculous seasons in modern NFL history, really. After beating the Texans by a touchdown in Week 1, the Chiefs then lost five straight to fall to 1-5. It appeared to be a disaster in progress … until the Chiefs then rattled off 10 straight wins to finish the season 11-5.
Boasting the third-best scoring defense in the NFL, the Chiefs showed off their defensive potency with a shutout* of the Texans in Houston in the wild-card round.
*Does a shutout of Brian Hoyer really count? This was, of course, The Brian Hoyer Game, when the quarterback threw four interceptions and completed 44 percent of his passes and had a 15.9 passer rating. Credit goes to K.C. defense for that … I guess.
For the Patriots, Julian Edelman was set to play for the first time since injuring his foot against the Giants in Week 10. The Patriots had, naturally, gone 10-0 with Edelman and 2-4 without him. And that was no coincidence.
And so, when the Chiefs came to town for a divisional round meeting with the Patriots — the first time the two teams had met since the famed 41-14 Monday night debacle early in 2014 — there was some real doubt as to whether the struggling Patriots could fend them off.
You may recall that in Week 17 in Miami, the Patriots’ offensive strategy involved handing the ball to Steven Jackson as many times as possible and letting him run into a wall of humans. It didn’t work too well.
The Patriots’ running game in this game was equally as inefficient, but Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick at least had the good sense to stop trying.
(Jackson and James White ran for a combined 21 yards on seven carries.)
If the Patriots were going to score on this day, they were going to do it with Tom Brady’s arm. Fortunately, ole’ Tom was up to the task.
Brady accounted for all 80 of the Patriots’ yards on the opening drive, going 8-for-11 and capping it off with an 8-yard touchdown strike to Rob Gronkowski.
Remember when these two guys used to play football in Foxboro? I do. pic.twitter.com/VmmofZsYGx
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) April 6, 2020
The highlight of that drive, though, came on a third-and-13, when Brady stepped up to avoid pressure and connected with his tight end for a gain of 32 yards.
On that opening drive, Brady faced three third downs. He went 3-for-3 for 51 yards and a touchdown. He was ready to play that day.
Edelman looked healthy, too, as he came up with an 11-yard reception on a third-and-10 before a 13-yard catch-and-run on the very next play.
As in, really ready. As in … willing to run to the pylon and absorb a massive hit to try to score a touchdown ready. As in, sneak it in for a TD on the next snap ready.
Even if it meant throwing all the touchdowns and rushing for all the touchdowns, Tom Brady really wanted to beat the Chiefs that day. And after that sneak, he was well on his way, with the Patriots leading 14-3.
Earlier on that drive, one of the most obscure 40-plus-yard playoff connections of Brady’s career took place, when he connected (by accident, perhaps) with Keshawn Martin for 42 yards.
Without looking it up, name that receiver. pic.twitter.com/x6SgRUs8vx
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) April 6, 2020
The Chiefs would add a field goal before halftime, giving them two scoring drives in the first half. The first one took 17 plays and drained 8:31 off the clock. That casual pacing would be a theme that would arise later in the game.
The Patriots appeared to have been well on their way to a blowout when Chandler Jones (fresh off an … eventful week) forced a fumble on the opening possession of the third quarter.
Brady then went 4-for-4 for 58 yards, hitting Gronkowski for another touchdown to put the Patriots up 21-6.
But the Chiefs showed some life, mounting yet another long scoring drive (12 plays, 80 yards, 6:12) to cut the lead to 21-13. The game might have actually been over if Alex Smith and Jason Avant had not combined for one of the more absurd plays of the year:
Great NFL duos:
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) April 6, 2020
It looked to be over again when Smith was sacked by Jones on a third-and-10 early in the fourth, right in the middle of two Stephen Gostkowski field goals to put the Patriots up 27-13.
A few minutes later, though, things got weird. Real weird. Weirder than they ever needed to get.
For much of the evening, the Patriots were in control. It looked like another ho-hum Patriots playoff victory, another divisional opponent dispatched in Foxboro. And when the Patriots forced a turnover on downs at midfield with 7:28 remaining and a 14-point lead? You would’ve felt safe to head for the exits if you wanted to beat the traffic.
But then the New England offense, which hadn’t had any issues dealing with K.C.’s defense, hit a wall. Brady had to throw a pass away on second-and-4, and a bullet deflected off the hands of Gronkowski on third down. The Patriots had to punt … and Ryan Allen’s punt bounced into the end zone for a touchback, netting just 22 yards.
Trailing by 14 points with 6:29 left in the game, the Chiefs had to move quickly. Or so we thought.
Instead, the offense (driven by then-offensive-coordinator/Eagles head coach-in-waiting Doug Pederson) slowly crawled its way up the field. Accepting short gains instead of taking deep shots, staying inbounds instead of stepping out of bounds, letting play clocks tick down to single digits, and showing no urgency whatsoever, it seemed as though the Chiefs were unaware of the scoreboard as they meticulously moved the football.
The casual pace was very apparent after Albert Wilson beat Malcolm Butler for a 19-yard gain that set up a first-and-goal with 2:52 left in the game. (Wilson could have easily stepped out of bounds, but he tried to score and got tackled inbounds.) The Chiefs had three timeouts but used none of them, instead “rushing” to the line of scrimmage with 2:32 left. Charcandrick West was tacked up behind the line for a loss of a yard; instead of calling a timeout or trying to run another player, the Chiefs allowed 28 seconds to tick off the clock for the two-minute warning.
That was odd.
Coming out of the two-minute warning, left tackle Eric Fisher flinched, pushing the Chiefs back to the 7-yard line. On the next snap, Smith threw over the middle … for a gain of four yards. The clock kept ticking. And the Chiefs … huddled up.
The shots on the CBS broadcast of Andy Reid standing silently on the sideline, his eyes occasionally flickering up to the clock before settling back on the field in a bit of a puzzled state, did not help the coach’s reputation for having an issue or two with clock management.
After letting 29 more seconds tick off the clock, the Chiefs ran another play. Logan Ryan was called for pass interference in the end zone.
After an incomplete pass, the Chiefs finally scored on an option run to West, having burned 1:42 off the clock after the long reception by Wilson.
The Chiefs were still alive, technically speaking. But they needed a miracle. They didn’t get it on the onside kick, which Rob Gronkowski secured in his bread basket. But they very nearly caught a break moments later.
The Patriots took over with 72 seconds left in the game. Kansas City still had those precious three timeouts, so New England needed a first down to seal the win. It wasn’t going to be delivered by Steven Jackson, who lost two yards on first-and-10, and everyone in the world knew it. Belichick and McDaniels (and Brady) figured a pass was their best option. A pass to Rob Gronkowski? A swell idea, no doubt.
Alas, Brady simply did not see Tamba Hali standing directly between himself and Gronkowski, and the result was one of the worst passes of Brady’s life.
But Hali was equally unaware that a pass was about to be speeding at his body, and the linebacker ended up deflecting the pass into the air, where it could have been grabbed by anyone. If a Chiefs player caught it with a head of steam, it would have been a game-tying pick-six. If a Chiefs player caught it while going down, then Kansas City would have had more than a minute plus two timeouts to try to drive for the tying touchdown.
And given the series of unimaginable losses that filled the end of the regular season for the Patriots, it felt in that moment like a worst-case scenario was the most likely result.
But luck was on New England’s side on this day, as the ball bounced off Hali, then off Gronkowski’s head, directly to Julian Edelman. He was simply in the right place at the right time to not only make the catch but also to pick up that desperately needed first down.
Of course, that would not go down as Edelman’s best catch off a deflected pass in a big playoff game … but it was nevertheless a sign of things to come.
That, though, is a story for another day. On this day, a nonchalant playoff victory suddenly turned into a bit of a nail biter, if only for the second that the football floated through trouble over the middle of the field, before coming down securely in the arms of Julian Edelman.
At the end of the 27-20 victory, the Patriots still had no running game to speak of. But they still had Brady, and they still had Gronkowski, and they still had Belichick. While a win in Denver against the jelly-armed Peyton Manning was far from a sure bet, the divisional round win over the Chiefs provided a some confidence for a Patriots team that badly needed some.