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.
"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 Steelers and 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. "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 sneaked in for another just 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 from 8 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.
"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 (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 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 score on the opening drive, throwing 11 straight passes and completing eight — the last an 8-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 2 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.
The stadium erupted in cheers of "Brady!" — just as it had four months ago when the four-time Super Bowl champion returned from his looming "Deflategate" suspension to play in the season opener.
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."
Patriots defensive lineman Chandler Jones also had a big play to finish an odd week that started on Sunday when he left his home reeking of marijuana and showed up shirtless and confused at the local police station. Jones apologized on Thursday, and coach Bill Belichick kept him in the starting lineup.
That left Jones in position to force 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 straight time. Brady added another touchdown pass to Gronkowski to make it 21-6.
Smith finally got the Chiefs into the end zone when he hit Albert Wilson on a 10-yard pass that made it 21-13 with 2 minutes left in the third quarter. Kansas City made it 27-20 with just over one minute left in the game on Charcandrick West's 1-yard run, but Gronkowski smothered the onside kick attempt to protect the lead.
NOTES: The Patriots are 18-4 all-time in the playoffs at Gillette Stadium. ... Jon Bon Jovi, a friend of Patriots coach Bill Belichick, was in the owner's box and led the stadium in a sing-along of his band's hit song "Livin' on a Prayer." ... Belichick reached the conference title game for the 10th time, tied with Tom Landry for most all-time. The five straight conference title games ties the 1973-77 Oakland Raiders for the most in NFL history. It's New England's 12th conference title game overall.