FOXBORO — Tom Brady stood with his hands on his hips as fans celebrated the last Patriots game of the season at Gillette Stadium on Sunday. It was a joyous event, but Brady wasn’t having it.
It was an odd year for the Patriots and their ageless quarterback. They lost five games — the most since 2009. A lot has happened since that season — including two Super Bowl titles and more accolades for Brady. Yet, there were doubts about this Patriots team in their AFC divisional matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers.
It was easy to see why. The Chargers had more Pro Bowl players, had more wins and looked dominant in their wildcard win over Baltimore a week earlier.
But Brady and the Patriots proved the naysayers wrong, delivering a 41-28 rout of the Chargers. Los Angeles never stood a chance as Brady & Co. showed everyone that the AFC still runs through them.
The Patriots now will take on the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday at 6:40 p.m. for the right to go to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. This marks the Patriots eighth-straight conference championship game. It’s one more chance to prove doubters wrong.
“It'll be a good game; they're a good team,” Brady told CBS Sports' Tracy Wolfson after the win on Sunday. “We played them earlier this year and I know everyone thinks we suck and, you know, can't win any games. So we'll see. It'll be fun.”
Brady’s pregame warm-up routine was monitored closely over the last few weeks of the regular season. After the quarterback didn’t jog the length of the field in either Week 16 or 17, it looked like Brady might still be dealing with a knee injury suffered in Tennessee on Nov. 11. On Sunday, Brady’s jog from the tunnel to the end zone made it look like everything was back to normal.
When the game started, that was evident.
Following a week off, Brady was back and so was the Patriots offense. Although Brady was brilliant — 34 of 44 for 343 yards and a touchdown — his running backs took center stage.
Rookie Sony Michel had one of the best games for a running back in Patriots playoff history, rushing for 129 yards and three touchdowns. James White hauled in a franchise playoff record 15 receptions, which tied the NFL playoff record, for 97 yards. Rex Burkhead also added a touchdown. On top of that, Julian Edelman finished with nine catches for 151 yards.
“It’s all about trust and patience,” said Michel, who finished with the fifth most rushing yards in Patriots history. “We’ve got faith that Coach’s going to call the best play possible for us to succeed. Guys take pride in executing plays. The offensive line, receivers, everybody did their job.”
The Patriots heard the outside noise all week. People talked about the fall of the dynasty and of Brady. So, when the Pats won the opening coin toss, they decided to make a statement by asking for the ball. The goal was to start fast and make the Chargers play from behind. They did just that.
The Patriots scored on their first four drives.
Michel started strong, scoring a 1-yard touchdown on the opening series to kick things off. The Chargers came roaring back on the next drive, knotting the score on a Philip Rivers-to-Keenan Allen touchdown pass that went 43 yards. That’s as close as Los Angeles would ever get.
Brady and the Patriots put together three scoring drives in a row after Allen’s score. Michel scored on a 14-yard touchdown run at 1:35 of the first quarter, Phillip Dorsett caught a 15-yard touchdown at 12:17 of the second and Burkhead ran in for a 6-yard touchdown at 6:04 of the second.
“It’s definitely beneficial,” Burkhead said of the run game. “Opens up things in the passing game, which Tom did a great job with. Jules played his tail off. Just with the offensive line setting the tone early on, it really opened up those things.”
At 3:32 of the second quarter, Chargers returner Desmond King muffed a Ryan Allen punt and the fumble was recovered by Albert McClellan. At 1:43 of the second, Michel ran in for his third score of the game, joining Curtis Martin and LeGarrette Blount as the only backs in Patriots history with three or more touchdowns in a playoff contest.
It all led to a commanding 35-7 lead at halftime.
In those first 30 minutes, the Patriots had more first downs (24) than the Chargers had offensive plays (23).
The second half was a mere formality. Stephen Gostkowski added to the Pats scoring with a pair of field goals, while the Chargers tacked on two garbage-time touchdowns. Rivers finished with 331 passing yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
But by then, the Patriots already made their point.
“We’ve been hearing things like that forever now. For a few years,” Rob Gronkowski said of the Patriots demise. “We just laugh at it, whatever they say, and keep moving forward.”