The Patriots' late-season slump didn't mean much when the playoffs came to New England. Kansas City's 11-game winning streak mattered even less.
With Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman coming back from injuries to help Tom Brady return to his Super Bowl MVP form, the Patriots earned a spot in the AFC title game for the fifth year in a row, beating the Chiefs 27-20 on Saturday in Foxborough, Mass.
"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 in his career. "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 (13-4) are trying to become the first team to win back-to-back 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 it's the Steelers.
"You can't take it for granted because everybody knows how hard it is to get there," said Edelman, who was sidelined with a broken foot when the Patriots lost four of their last six regular-season games.
Brady threw for two touchdowns to Gronkowski and sneaked in for another just one play after diving for the pylon after a 10-yard scramble that was his longest post-season run in nine years. Brady took a helmet in the back as his body, but not the ball, cleared the goal line.
After spending the last two weeks recovering from knee and back injuries, Gronkowski caught seven passes for 83 yards, including touchdowns from eight and 16 yards out. Gronkowski also 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.
Alex Smith completed 29 of 50 passes for 246 yards and one touchdown for Kansas City (12-6). 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.
In the meantime, the Patriots have won 24 post-season games.
Brady led New England to a score on the opening drive, throwing 11 straight passes and completing eight, the last an eight-yard score 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 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 Chiefs 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.