Mon Jan 21 7:22pm ET
By KYLE HIGHTOWER
AP Sports Writer
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) makes a catch against Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Daniel Sorensen (49) during the first half of the AFC Championship NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
New England Patriots running back Sony Michel (26) runs to the end zone for a touchdown during the second half of the AFC Championship NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady celebrates during the trophy presentation after the AFC Championship NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick holds the AFC Championship trophy as he talks with Jim Nantz after defeating the Kansas City Chiefs the AFC Championship NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates after defeating the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Tom Brady smiled his way through the week leading up to Sunday's AFC championship game, mostly brushing aside questions about being an underdog for one of the few times during the Patriots' unprecedented run of titles.
But when Rex Burkhead crossed the goal line for a 2-yard touchdown to give New England a 37-31 overtime win over the Kansas City Chiefs, Brady let joy alter his usual coy demeanor.
He ripped off his helmet and leapt wildly in the air as his teammates rushed the field around him. The Patriots were heading back to another Super Bowl.
It will mark their third straight appearance for the Patriots and ninth overall for Brady, who again will be chasing a record sixth ring.
A victory over the NFC champion Los Angeles Rams would also put an emphatic stamp on what may have been the Patriots' toughest road to a Super Bowl since Brady and Bill Belichick earned their first ring together in 2001.
''The odds were stacked against us. It hasn't been that way in a while and it certainly was this year,'' Brady said.
The obstacles that Brady referred to occurred both on and off the field for this latest incarnation of the Patriots.
The offseason saw the departure of several key players from last year's team that came up short in a Super Bowl loss to Philadelphia. Receiver Brandin Cooks was traded to the Rams and cornerback Malcolm Butler, running back Dion Lewis, receiver Danny Amendola, and offensive linemen Nate Solder and Cam Fleming all left in free agency.
Then came news that stalwart receiver Julian Edelman would be suspended for the first four games of the regular season for violating the league's policy on performance enhancers.
It helped contribute to a surprise 1-2 start and the first - albeit small - signs of age for the 41-year-old Brady.
New England took a chance and traded for receiver Josh Gordon after Cleveland decided it was time to part ways with him. His arrival helped calm things and contributed to six consecutive victories.
But questions returned after a lopsided Week 10 loss at Tennessee that exposed vulnerabilities on both sides of the ball. The Patriots won their next two, but then suffered a fluky last-second loss at Miami.
That was followed by a loss at Pittsburgh and the abrupt loss of Gordon when he was suspended indefinitely by the NFL for violating an agreement that allowed him to play after multiple drug suspensions.
Still, despite facing the prospect of not having their usual home-field advantage in the postseason, the Patriots rediscovered their run game and offensive efficiency during wins over the Bills and Jets to close the regular season.
Brady threw for four touchdowns and had his highest quarterback rating of the season in the 38-3 victory over the Jets. It set the stage for a vintage performance by Brady in their divisional-round playoff win over the Chargers. And on Sunday against Kansas City, he had 348 yards passing despite throwing two interceptions.
He also got support from a resurgent defense and revamped rushing attack on offense. The latter has gotten back-to-back 100-yard rushing games from rookie Sony Michel, who set a rookie NFL playoff record with five touchdowns in his first two postseason games.
Also making huge contributions in the fourth quarter and OT against the Chiefs were both Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Gronk's regular season was mostly underwhelming as he dealt with nagging injuries, but he was surehanded at the perfect time against Kansas City, catching six passes for 79 yards. Edelman had seven catches for 96 yards as both came through with huge third-down catches late in the game.
Gronk said he took his cues from Brady.
''You're always comfortable with Tom going down on drives,'' said Gronkowski, who is the first tight end with 1,000 postseason receiving yards. ''He's always ready for these moments. And that's why he's the best quarterback - hands down.
''It was one of the sweeter victories definitely of my career.''
The Patriots will have a chance to top it in two weeks in Atlanta.
Safety Devin McCourty said it's a position they always thought they'd be in.
''We're not worried about stats. We're not worried about Pro Bowls, All-Pros,'' he said. ''When we come back in April each year, it's about getting to this game no matter what it takes.
''This year was a tough one. We battled some things. We've been questioned and doubted by a lot of people. But I think the great thing is we trust in what we believe. Our faith never wavered inside the locker room.''
The Detroit Lions released wide receiver Bruce Ellington, safety Glover Quinn and linebacker Nicholas Grigsby on Friday. Ellington signed with the Lions after they traded Golden Tate to the Eagles and became their slot receiver until he landed on Injured Reserve on Dec. 22. He had 23 catches for 132 yards in four games for Detroit. Ellington's best year came in 2017 with the Texans when he had 29 catches for 330 yards and two touchdowns. Wherever he signs, he'll battle for a roster spot in training camp.
The Buffalo Bills released tight end Charles Clay on Friday. Clay provided only 21 catches (36 targets) for 184 yards (career-low 8.8 yards per catch) and no touchdowns in 13 games for Buffalo in 2018. He was rarely in the game plan for the Bills the last two seasons and won't be a very popular target on the free-agent market. His best season came in 2013 with the Dolphins when he had 69 receptions (103 targets) for 759 yards and six scores over a full season. The days of Clay being on fantasy rosters is over.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles would "probably" be interested in playing for the New York Giants if they decide to move on from Eli Manning, according to one person with knowledge of Foles' thinking. Foles landing with the Giants would be less likely if the Eagles place the franchise tag on him, which is unlikely. The Jaguars are another team to watch out for, and there is mutual interest between them and Foles. After winning Super Bowl MVP two years ago and playing well as a starter again in 2018 when Carson Wentz was injured, Foles should earn a starting gig on the open market with several teams looking for a signal caller. While Foles has QB1 upside in the right matchups, his 2019 fantasy value will ultimately depend on where he winds up.
All indications are that the Pittsburgh Steelers plan to use the transition tag on running back Le'Veon Bell by the deadline on March 5. It's expected to have a value of $9.5 million to $14.5 million for one season and gives the Steelers a chance to match any offer he'd receive on the open market. Pittsburgh doesn't plan on matching any offer to retain Bell, but only to trade him. However, even if the Steelers find a taker in a trade, they'd need Bell to sign the transition tag first, which is highly unlikely. This situation continues to get uglier, but Bell won't be playing in Pittsburgh in 2019 no matter what. Despite having 1,229 rushing attempts in five seasons, Bell is in the prime of his career and has reached the 1,000-yard mark three times. He's one of the more versatile backs in the NFL and should remain an RB1 in his next home.
Arizona Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson will return to shadowing the top opposing wide receivers in 2019, according to defensive coordinator Vance Joseph.
Free-agent RB Mike Gillislee (Saints) worked out for the Detroit Lions Thursday, Feb. 14.
Miami Dolphins WR Danny Amendola could fill the slot receiver role for the Detroit Lions in 2019 because of his connection to head coach Matt Patricia, in the opinion of Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com.
Denver Broncos WR Emmanuel Sanders (Achilles') said he is no longer wearing a walking boot but still has a 'slight limp' when walking around.
Fantasy Spin: After suffering an Achilles' injury late in the year, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Sanders miss time in 2019. He showed last year that he can be a WR2 as the top option in Denver's passing attack, but fantasy owners will need to be patient as he returns to form.
Arizona Cardinals WR Chad Williams caught 37 percent of the passes thrown his way in 2018 and had two catches or less in all but two games.
Minnesota Vikings WR Laquon Treadwell averaged 5.7 yards per target last year, the fourth-worst mark among receivers with at least 50 targets, and Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com expects Treadwell's fifth-year option to be declined.
Fantasy Spin: The former first-round pick has been a bust, and he didn't show any signs of righting the ship despite a bigger role in 2018. Even in dynasty formats, it may be time to give up on Treadwell.
Philadelphia Eagles impending free-agent WR Golden Tate and Washington Redskins impending free-agent WR Jamison Crowder are options to fill the need the Green Bay Packers have at slot receiver, according to Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com.
Fantasy Spin: The Packers need a dependable option to support Davante Adams, and both Tate and Crowder would quickly become potential WR3 options if Aaron Rodgers is throwing them the ball.
Atlanta Falcons SS Keanu Neal (knee) posted a video of himself going through agility drills without a brace on his injured left knee.
Washington Redskins QB Colt McCoy (leg) was seen without any braces or supports for his injured leg.
Los Angeles Chargers impending free-agent LB Denzel Perryman will be re-signed this offseason if the Chargers have their way, according to a source.
Updating a previous report, free-agent QB Colin Kaepernick (49ers) desired at least $20 million to play in the Alliance of American Football, according to a source.
Free-agent QB Nick Foles (Eagles) is expected to 'keep tabs on' the New York Giants this offseason, according to NJ.com's Zack Rosenblatt. A source with knowledge of Foles' thinking said the former Super Bowl MVP would 'probably' be interested in starting for the Giants if they were to release QB Eli Manning.
Fantasy Spin: There are many pieces that must fall in order for Foles to the Giants to work out. It's a sensible destination, though, with Odell Beckham Jr. and Saquon Barkley leading one of the most talented offenses in the NFL. Foles could be the piece that makes them take a forward step. Were this signing to come to fruition, Foles would demand QB1 consideration given the pieces that would be around him.
Free-agent QB Nick Foles (Eagles) is not expected to return to the Philadelphia Eagles as the backup to Carson Wentz.
Fantasy Spin: Foles deserves a starting job. He won't want to play as a backup and make less money when there are teams willing to pay him to be their starter. He can be a part of the QB1 conversation if he lands in the right spot. Of course, when Wentz is healthy he too has QB1 appeal.
Free-agent QB Colin Kaepernick (49ers) and former NFL QB Tim Tebow were asked if they wanted to join the Alliance of American Football, according to league co-founder Bill Polian. Polian said he doesn't know what transpired with Kaepernick, but added that he spoke personally with Tebow, who declined.
Pittsburgh Steelers WR Antonio Brown and Steelers impending free-agent RB Le'Veon Bell are not expected to be intensely pursued by the Indianapolis Colts this offseason. The Colts will have the most salary cap space in the league this offseason and will do their due diligence, but Brown's off-field drama and Bell's asking price may be too much for the Colts.
Fantasy Spin: The Colts did just fine last year without the services of Brown or Bell. Brown seems like more of an immediate need, but general manager Chris Ballard wants a cohesive and cooperative locker room. While the fantasy marriage of Brown and/or Bell with the Colts might be ideal, don't get your hopes up.
Dallas Cowboys LB Sean Lee is considered a strong candidate to be cut this offseason, in the opinion of NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal. Lee's extensive injury history, $10 million cap hit and the presence of fellow LBs Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith don't bode well for a possible return.