New England Patriots embarrass Chargers en route to 8th consecutive AFC championship game
You’re never going to believe it, but the bold strategy to pick against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in Foxboro in the divisional round following a first-round bye backfired.
The New England Patriots, they of the 11-5 regular-season mark and NFL-record 10 straight division titles, so thoroughly out-classed the visiting Los Angeles Chargers in a 41-28 laugher that it made the Kansas City Chiefs’ domination of the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday feel like a nail-biter.
The Patriots tallied more first downs (24) than the Chargers ran plays (23) in the first half, which mercifully ended with Belichick’s team leading Anthony Lynn’s, 35-7. Brady might have followed his 2017 MVP campaign with one of his more pedestrian regular seasons in recent memory, but he picked up Sunday where he left off in last year’s epic postseason run.
Brady completed 34-of-44 for 343 yards and one touchdown, a 15-yarder to Phillip Dorsett to punctuate New England’s third TD drive in as many series to open the game. He threw with precision and velocity, standing tall but uncoiling almost instantly, to connect with seven different pass catchers.
The week off appeared to do wonders not only for Brady, who battled a mysterious knee injury in the latter part of the regular season, but Julian Edelman and Sony Michel — both of whom went over their respective century marks in yardage ... in the first half. Michel finished with three touchdowns among his 22 carries for 126 yards, a performance reminding some of his postseason run earlier this year at Georgia. Edelman surpassed Colts great Reggie Wayne as the second-most prolific postseason receiver ever.
James White broke his own playoff record with 15 receptions. Rob Gronkowski, after the least productive regular season of his career preceded a new round of retirement rumblings prior to Sunday’s kickoff, only caught one pass. But it channeled peak Gronk as he rumbled 25 yards, most of it after contact.
Gronk looked awfully healthy as a blocker, too, helping the Patriots’ offensive line maul the Chargers’ vaunted front headlined by Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, who combined merely for one pass defensed and tackle before the game essentially was over.
Brady wasn’t even hurried in the first half, when Chargers DC Gus Bradley opted to play almost exclusive zone coverages and rush four or fewer men — another bold strategy up in smoke. That game plan, after working beautifully against Lamar Jackson’s Baltimore Ravens, only fed the confidence and command of Brady, perhaps as dialed in as we’ve seen since his record-breaking Super Bowl LII showing.
It’s wild to think that the Chargers actually responded to the Patriots’ game-opening 14-play, 83-yard TD drive, chewing up more than half of the first quarter. Philip Rivers hit Keenan Allen on a 43-yard bomb after his Pro Bowl receiver toasted his All-Pro counterpart, Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore.
But the Chargers punted on their final four possessions of the first half, when they managed only three first downs. They came out of the tunnel to begin the second half with another three-and-out, reinforcing what everyone already knew: the game long had been over. Although the Bolts would chip away at the Patriots’ insurmountable lead with three long TD drives ending in short touchdowns to Melvin Gordon, Virgil Green and Antonio Gates, respectively, it was only window dressing.
New England improved to 9-0 under Belichick and Brady in playoff games in which they led by at least seven points after the first quarter. Interestingly, the only time they trailed in a game this season at Gilette was vs. the Chiefs, who await the rematch at Arrowhead on Sunday.
Though Brady and Belichick generally get most of the attention, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was also brilliant Sunday. After getting only one known head-coach interview this offseason, his play calling from the opening series featured a balanced blend of runs and quick-hitting passes that got Brady in a groove and took Bosa and Ingram out of the game. McDaniels used every inch of the field, featuring a slew of offensive playmakers to create a diverse attack that virtually no one saw coming based on the offense’s regular-season struggles.
While McDaniels might have made a few other NFL teams envious that rushed to fill their head-coach vacancies, his colleague, LB coach and pseudo DC Brian Flores, validated the Miami Dolphins’ reported plan to make him their next head coach. Save for the blown coverage on Allen’s touchdown, New England’s ‘D’ was excellent. Trey Flowers was a pressure-generating machine up front, with the back seven largely erasing the Bolts’ two most dangerous playmakers in Allen and Melvin Gordon.
The Chargers have a lot to be proud of from their 13-4 campaign, but it’ll be an especially long trip home knowing that they weren’t competitive against a Patriots club that supposedly was susceptible coming in. It was widely believed that Anthony Lynn would have to be more aggressive on offense after largely leaning on his defense and special teams last week. And though Rivers came out bombing, it was the Chargers’ timid defensive approach making the game plan on offense basically irrelevant.
Following their most impressive win of the season, the Patriots visit Arrowhead and the top-seeded Chiefs in a preposterous eighth consecutive conference title game. New England held off Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs 43-40 in the regular season, a thrilling primetime fireworks display in which Kansas City rallied from a 24-9 halftime deficit to take a brief fourth-quarter lead before Stephen Gostkowski’s 28-yard game-winning field goal at the buzzer.
That win marked New England’s only time eclipsing the 40-point mark ... until Sunday. Of course, the Chiefs reached that total five times and are coming off their finest defensive performance of the season.
Still, the Patriots reminded us once again Sunday that they’re not done just yet.