With Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman coming back from injuries to help Tom Brady return to his Super Bowl MVP form, the New England Patriots earned a spot in the AFC title game for the fifth year in a row, beating the Kansas City Chiefs, 27-20, on Saturday.
"It's pretty special to get back to another AFC championship game," said Brady, who will play for the conference title for the 10th time. "It's pretty cool. It's hard to do, man. You've got to grind throughout the entire year. There's only four teams playing next week and we're one of them. That game means a lot."
The Patriots are trying to become the first team to win consecutive NFL titles since they did it in 2003-04. But first they will meet the winner of Sunday's game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos for a spot in Super Bowl 50.
The defending champions would play in Denver on Jan. 24 if the Broncos win or at home if the Steelers win.
"You can't take it for granted because everybody knows how hard it is to get there," said Edelman, who was sidelined because of a broken foot when the Patriots lost four of their last six regular-season games. "We didn't do too well down the stretch and we were playing against a team that won 11 games in a row.
"We didn't worry about what's happened in the past or what's going to happen in the future."
Brady threw for two touchdowns to Gronkowski and ran for one only one play after diving for the pylon after a 10-yard scramble that was his longest postseason run in nine years. Brady took a helmet in the back as his body, but not the ball, cleared the goal line.
"Anytime the Clydesdale gets running, the crowd goes crazy," Edelman said.
After spending the last two weeks recovering from knee and back injuries, Gronkowski caught seven passes for 83 yards, including touchdowns of eight and 16 yards. Gronkowski recovered an onside kick after Kansas City cut the deficit to 27-20 with just over one minute left.
Danny Amendola had two catches for 18 yards as he worked his way back from a knee injury.
"It's just great to have those guys back," Gronkowski said. "They're hard workers, they're great players. The chemistry was clicking tonight."
Alex Smith completed 29 of 50 passes for 246 yards and one touchdown for Kansas City. The Chiefs had won 11 consecutive games, including a 30-0 victory over Houston in the wild-card round last week for their first playoff victory since 1993.
The Patriots have won 24 postseason games.
"It gives us a great example of where we need to be," Chiefs Coach Andy Reid said. "So, this is a good experience for us. That's the way we'll take it. We'll learn from our mistakes.
"I'm proud of my guys, man. They battled like crazy this year, but came up a little short. We'll be a better team for it next year."
Brady led New England to a touchdown on the opening drive, throwing 11 consecutive passes and completing eight, the last one an eight-yard touchdown throw to Gronkowski. The Chiefs then made it to the Patriots 16 but settled for a field goal.
After trading punts twice, the Patriots started on their two when Amendola was flagged for a helmet-first hit to coverage man Jamell Fleming. The drive was in danger of stalling at the Kansas City 35 when linebacker Dezman Moses hit Brady late and was called for roughing the passer.
Four plays later, unable to find an open receiver, Brady took off for the corner of the end zone. The Chiefs managed to keep him out, but on the next snap, Brady leaned forward and reached into the end zone to make it 14-3.
"I thought I could try to make it. We were close. Not close enough, but we got in on the next play," said Brady, who shrugged off the two big hits on that drive. "It's football season, so there's bumps and bruises, but you've got to fight through those."
Lineman Chandler Jones forced Knile Davis' fumble on Kansas City's first possession of the second half, stopping the Chiefs as they drove into New England territory for the sixth consecutive time. Brady added another touchdown pass to Gronkowski to make it 21-6.