FOXBORO — For two weeks the Patriots heard it all and quietly seethed.
They heard all about the rising powers in Kansas City and Los Angeles with designs on stealing their AFC crown. They heard how their quarterback was old, their tight end was washed up and their defense wasn’t ready for prime time. They heard that their long-running dynasty was in its dying days.
Well, scratch that. The Patriots are not done yet. Not by a long shot.
As the football world babbled about the pending demise of the Pats, the players and coaches spent the last two weeks going about their business. They practiced, got healthy and prepared for yet another January of playoff football.
When it was time to finally play — not talk — Bill Belichick’s team just happened to put together its best game of the season. In fact the Pats played one of their most dominant playoff games in years as they manhandled the Chargers Sunday, 41-28.
Don’t be fooled by the final score. This game was a beat down, a butt kicking. The Chargers, a team that enjoyed a better regular season than the Patriots, weren’t ready for big-boy football. The Pats left legions of doubters shaking their heads.
“We know how people feel about us, and that’s OK,” said Matthew Slater, the special teams ace who’s played in four Super Bowls. “We’ve had our struggles this year and there are a lot of good football teams out there. You can’t really take offense to that. All you can do is work hard and put yourself in position to be competitive.”
Asked what his team’s blowout victory told the football world, Slater smirked and said “we still have a little left in the tank.”
That feeling permeated the Patriots locker room. They’re headed to the AFC Championship Game next week in Kansas City. It’s the team’s unfathomable eighth straight title game and, rest assured, after seeing what the Pats did to these Chargers, even the high-powered Chiefs will have several uneasy nights this week thinking about Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, James White and friends.
“I guess people are tired of the Patriots going to the AFC Championship,” said safety Duron Harmon. “We work hard. We know if we have an opportunity to play a game, we have a chance to win it as long as we prepare and practice and do everything the way that we’re coached to.”
This one began with promise, but quickly evaporated into one of those red, white and blue playoff parties Patriots fans now take for granted.
The Patriots won the toss and chose to take the ball. That’s not the Belichick way but it was on this day. “I was surprised,” said Edelman, “but he’s the old, wise owl. You’ve just got to listen.”
The Pats promptly rolled through the Charger defense on a 14-play drive that ate more than seven minutes off the clock. Sony Michel (three touchdowns) and White (15 catches) combined to touch the ball on 12 of the 14 plays with the rookie walking in from the 1-yard line for the game’s first touchdown.
The Chargers answered with an impressive first possession of their own. Top-flight receiver Keenan Allen put a big-time move on Stephon Gilmore, broke free and Philip Rivers dropped a 43-yard TD pass into his hands.
But while the Patriot offense was just getting started, the Chargers couldn’t keep pace. Not by a long shot.
The football world heard an awful lot about the supposed wizardry of Charger defensive coordinator Gus Bradley after last week’s wildcard win in Baltimore. He designed sets with extra defensive backs that confounded Lamar Jackson and punched L.A.’s ticket to Foxboro. Bradley mixed some similar “small ball” looks in against the Pats but even when the Chargers tried to play physical, “they did a heck of a job picking us apart,” said Los Angeles coach Anthony Lynn.
Brady (34-of-44, 343 yards) had all the answers to the test. Whether Josh McDaniels called for a dump pass to White, a look at Edelman in the slot or a pound up the gut by Michel, everything worked.
New England salted this one away by halftime. Consider these two stats. As fans rushed onto the concourses for a celebratory Sam Adams, the Pats owned 24 first downs while the Chargers had only run 23 plays. New England racked up more total yards in the half (347) than the Chargers (335) would end up with all day.
Now, as Belichick would say, we are onto Kansas City. Only two of the Patriots previous seven AFC title games came on the road, and neither ended well. The Pats lost in Denver in the 2013 and '15 seasons and the Chiefs will be the deserved favorites next Sunday. They have the NFL’s likely MVP in Patrick Mahomes and the most dynamic player in the game in explosive Tyreek Hill.
That a stop at Arrowhead Stadium is all that’s standing between the Pats and another Super Bowl is not without its share of irony. The last time Brady played there (2014), the Chiefs put a 41-14 whipping on the Pats. In the days after, the same sages who were all in on the Chargers Sunday loudly questioned whether Brady’s time atop the game was over.
Well that was three AFC titles and two Super Bowl championships ago. Brady hasn’t fallen off that cliff just yet, and rest assured he and his teammates listen when the doubters predict his team’s demise.
“I know everyone thinks we suck and, you know, can’t win any games,” Brady told CBS after this win. “So we’ll see. It’ll be fun.”