The New England Patriots will be returning to the AFC Championship game for the fifth straight year, courtesy of their 27-20 victory over Kansas City this past Saturday evening in the Division Playoff at Gillette Stadium, and one of the key components was wide receiver Julian Edelman. He returned to the club after undergoing surgery on his left foot back on November 16, and while the Patriots had been 9-0 with him in the lineup, New England had finished a disappointing 3-4 in his absence.
As a result of the injury, Edelman came back to action wearing a specially designed left shoe that had a metal plate. He had broken the fifth metatarsal in the foot in the Patriots’ 27-26 come-from-behind victory over the New York Giants on November 15.
Edelman had been one of quarterback Tom Brady’s weapons that had suffered a variety of injuries over the course of the campaign. Wide receiver Danny Amendola and tight end Rob Gronkowski had both missed some action late in the season, while running backs Dion Lewis and LaGarrette Blount each suffered season-ending blows as well. Before his own setback, Edelman had caught 61 passes, good for 692 yards, and had already set a career best of seven touchdowns.
In last year’s Division Playoff game against Baltimore, Edelman, who had been a collegiate quarterback at Kent State University, threw a touchdown pass out of the halfback option to bring the team back from a 14-point deficit on its march towards the Super Bowl. His plays this Saturday didn’t involve anything out of the ordinary, but Edelman proved to be a pertinent part of the Patriots’ offense against Kansas City.
It didn’t take Edelman, who caught a team-high 10 passes for 100 yards, too long to play a role in Saturday’s action. Brady went to him on three straight plays on the team’s initial drive of the game. After an incompletion, the two of them hooked up on an 11-yard screen that gave the Patriots a first down at their 31, then a short over-the-middle flair had Edelman advancing the ball to the 43. The team continued to plow the ball downfield, with Brady going to the air on every play of the drive. After a 26-yard completion to Gronkowski brought the team a first down at the Chiefs’ 17, Brady again tried to hit Edelman near the Kansas City goal line, but the ball was underthrown. Two plays later, a seven-yard strike from Brady to Gronkowski gave the Patriots a 7-0 edge less than five minutes into the contest.
The Chiefs crept to within 7-3 on a short field goal on their first possession, and so Brady went back to Edelman when New England regained the ball. They teamed on a three-yard sideline pass, but came close to turning the ball over moments later, when Edelman bobbled a Brady offering near the Patriots 40. The ball lofted in the air, coming close to being picked off by Kansas City cornerback Marcus Cooper. The receiver had another drop midway through the second quarter along the right sideline (he was targeted by Brady a game-high 16 times).
Yet Edelman came up with a pair of receptions in the team’s final possession of the half to help set up a TD run by Brady. A punt deep into Patriots territory, along with a penalty against Amendola combined to pin the team within the shadows of its own end zone at the 2. On New England’s first play, Brady hit Edelman with an 11-yarder to give the team breathing room at its 13. Passes from Brady to receiver Keyshawn Martin (42 yards) and Gronkowski (four) brought New England to Kansas City’s 44. On third-and-four, Edelman caught Brady’s next offering, despite being in double coverage. The catch placed the ball at the 34, and soon after, Brady capped off the drive with a quarterback keeper from the 1 that gave New England a 14-6 halftime lead.
The Chiefs turned the ball over with a fumble on their opening possession of the second half, and Edelman had two key plays to increase New England’s margin. The Patriots had the ball at their own 47 after an 18-yard completion to Gronkowski. Edelman lined up at the far right of Brady, ran into the backfield and took the handoff on an end around. He broke down along the far sidelines for a 13-yard gain, moving the ball to Kansas City’s 40. Brady then found Edelman on the next play, with the receiver catching the ball not only tip-toeing along the sidelines and barely keeping his feet inbounds, but also being blanketed by Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith. The play was good for 14 yards (Edelman’s longest catch of the day), and the drive culminated two plays later on another Brady to Gronkowski score. That made the lead 21-6.
Edelman played solidly the rest of the game, making three additional receptions. Yet, perhaps his most important catch came with just over a minute remaining in regulation. The Chiefs had just scored seconds earlier to get to within 27-20, and the Patriots needed to get further into Kansas City territory to put the game on ice. Edelman caught a deflected second down pass to bring New England to Kansas City’s 35 with 55 seconds left, and Brady took three straight knees to end the game.
With a healthy Edelman (as well as Amendola and Gronkowski), the team is now just one win away from defending its Super Bowl title. While Edelman may not have been needed down the stretch (a playoff spot was determined the first game of his absence), his spot in the lineup is certainly valued, especially now in the playoffs. He can certainly make all the difference for Brady and the Patriots’ offense, and his versatility truly indicates that.