The magical football journey of the 2015 Chiefs came to an end Saturday evening at Gillette Stadium, the home of the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
The 11-game winning streak for Andy Reid’s team was brought to a jarring halt by Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and the rest of the postseason veterans that fill the Patriots roster.
New England advanced to the AFC Championship Game for the fifth consecutive season with the 27-20 victory over the Chiefs.
“They did a nice job offensively, defensively and on special teams,” Reid said of the Patriots. “I thought they did a good job. We had a couple blips tonight that you can’t have in the playoffs.”
It was the first time the Chiefs experienced that losing feeling since October 18, when they fell to the Vikings in Minnesota. Through those 10 games and then last week’s victory over Houston in the wildcard round of the playoffs, K.C. had a script they repeated week-after-week.
But they were unable to duplicate their winning formula. In fact, it was the direct opposite, with those blips Reid mentioned as examples of how the Chiefs beat themselves as much as the Patriots contributed to their demise.
“We probably had enough offense to win the game,” said veteran wide receiver Jason Avant, who ended up as the Chiefs leading receiver. The numbers back up Avant – the Chiefs had 378 offensive yards, compared to 340 for the Patriots. They finished with a 15-minute advantage in time of possession. “We didn’t execute very well. The Patriots had a good game plan for us.
Instead of grabbing an early lead, the Chiefs were down by eight points at halftime and spent a lot of the second half down by 14 points. The winning streak was built on early leads that allowed Reid’s team to control the game’s momentum. They had the advantage in turnovers, but the defense did not take the ball away from the Patriots and running back Knile Davis coughed up a fumble that led to the second of two Brady touchdown throws to Gronkowski.
In the previous 11 games, they led the sack ratio, but on this night they didn’t lay a hand on Brady.
“The ball came out quick,” said outside linebacker Tamba Hali. “The rush wasn’t getting there. They played well and we give them credit for that.”
The streak was built on a balanced offensive attack, but that went out the window in the second half, and the Chiefs finished with 51 passing plays, to 32 running plays. That’s not the type of game the Kansas City offense can win, especially against a team as good as the Patriots.
Matters were not helped by players not available because of injury. Starting offensive linemen Mitch Morris and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif were inactive due to concussions. Outside linebacker Justin Houston barely played because of his sore knee and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin “did what he could” according to Reid on his sprained ankle, catching two passes for 23 yards. Fullback Spencer Ware was in uniform, but not a factor in the Chiefs offense.
“It was tough man,” said Maclin, who suffered is high ankle sprain last Saturday against Houston. “It was painful. I told myself I was going to go out there and do what I could to help my team win. The pain reached a point where it was time for me to come out of the game.”
For the Chiefs to win this divisional-round game they needed the better players that were available to step up and produce.
That did not happen.
Brady outplayed Alex Smith in the quarterback battle. Brady threw for 302 yards and connected with Gronkowski for 8 and 16-yard touchdown plays. The quarterback even scored one himself with a 1-yard dive into the end zone. Smith completed 58 percent of his throws (29 of 50) for 246 yards, or 4.9 yards per attempt.
“They came out with a good plan for us and we weren’t able to make the adjustments fast enough,” said Smith.
Gronkowski caught seven passes for 83 yards, with two touchdowns. Kelce was no competition for Gronk, with six catches for only 23 yards. Edelman returned to the New England lineup after missing seven games with a foot injury to catch 10 passes for 100 yards.
Without Maclin, Avant was the most productive receiver with four catches for 69 yards. Wide receiver Albert Wilson did have a 10-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter. The Chiefs only other touchdown came with 1 minutes, 13 seconds to play when running back Charcandrick West found the end zone on a 1-yard run.
New England scored on the game’s first possession, moving the ball 80 yards on 11 plays with Brady and Gronkowski putting TD No. 1 on the scoreboard. Cairo Santos had field goals of 34 and 32 yards sandwiched around Brady’s 1-yard plunge for a touchdown.
The Chiefs blew a great opportunity in the first half when a 19-yard punt return by Frankie Hammond allowed them to start a possession at the New England 36-yard line. They ran three plays that produced a 1-yard loss and were forced to punt the ball away.
“We didn’t do anything with that,” said Smith. “It would have been big. You have to take advantage of those opportunities when they come. When you are on the fringe of field goal range and if you get any yards there you are probably going to get points. We weren’t able to do anything.”
The teams went to intermission with the Patriots holding a 14-6 lead, but the Chiefs had the first possession of the second half, but got nothing out of that chance because of a turnover.
Davis caught a pass from Smith, gained enough for a first down, but then coughed the ball up. It was recovered by New England and the Patriots went 69 yards in five plays ending with a 16-yard scoring toss from Brandy to Gronkowski and a 21-6 lead.
“I was trying to make a play; I feel like it swung the game,” Davis said of his fumble. “We had momentum going and we were moving the ball. It was just unfortunate.”
Smith finally got his offense moving late in the third quarter and drove 80 yards on 12 plays before a 10-yard TD play with Wilson. But it wasn’t enough, as New England stretched the point-margin with a pair of field goals from Stephen Gostkowski.
West scored late, setting the final score at 27-20 and bringing an end to a remarkable season for the Chiefs. From 1-5 to the divisional round of the playoffs had never happened before in the NFL. It appeared the magic simply ran out against a very good team.
“This is a good experience for us,” said Reid. “That’s how we’ll take it. We’ll learn from our mistakes. I’m proud of my guys; they battled like crazy this year and came up a little bit short. We’ll be a better team for it next year.”