PATRIOTS PUT NAYSAYERS IN THEIR PLACE YET AGAIN
Dismantling of Chargers sends Brady & Co. to eighth straight AFC championship game
Too old. Too slow. Too used up? Those descriptions of the 2018 New England Patriots might yet prove true in these NFL playoffs.
But it surely wasn’t the case here in their AFC divisional matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers Sunday.
Quarterback Tom Brady acknowledged the mounting criticism he and his teammates had been hearing.
“Everyone thinks we suck, and can’t win any games,” the quarterback said bluntly.
The Pats put that to rest for the time being as they proved far too sharp, far too powerful and far too good for the Chargers in a 41-28 rout.
It wasn’t even that close. Three late-game touchdowns by the Chargers rounded the crisp edges off a first-rate 21st-century New England playoff blowout.
New England (12-5) advances to the AFC Championship Game next Sunday against the Chiefs in Kansas City (6:40 p.m. EST).
The winner of that game plays the NFC champion (New Orleans or the L.A. Rams) in Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3 in Atlanta.
The Chiefs punched their ticket with a 31-13 demolition of the Indianapolis Colts Saturday.
This will mark the Patriots’ eighth straight AFC championship game, and 13th in Bill Belichick’s 19 seasons as the head coach. Something to consider. He’s 8-0 in such games at home but 0-4 on the road.
But who’ll doubt the Patriots are wholly capable of winning in K.C.?
Not after they absolutely destroyed a loaded Chargers team that came into Gillette Stadium red hot — winners of six of their last seven, 12 of their last 14, with a league-high seven Pro Bowl selections, and with quarterback Philip Rivers at the zenith of arguably his best season of 15 in the NFL.
None of it mattered any more than the premature conclusions about the supposed playoff wobbliness of the grizzled, aging Patriots.
Surprisingly, nowhere was such doom and gloom more pronounced than in New England. Those who follow the sport closely could not bring themselves to believe this Patriots team had much left in the tank to scrounge a single playoff victory this month, especially against these Chargers.
They were proven wrong. New England dominated from the opening whistle — actually, from the opening coin flip a couple minutes before, which the Pats won when the Chargers picked tails and it came up heads.
It would be hard to pick an offensive hero for New England. Or defensive hero. Too many to choose from. For once, Belichick was right when he hauled out that trusty bromide for every question about individual stars.
Still, how about that New England playoff newbie, rookie running back Sony Michel? He was so wobbly and unready for the playoffs he rushed for 105 yards and three scores by halftime, and finished with 129 yards.
James White was so wobbly as the lightning counterpart to Michel’s thunder he caught 10 passes for 71 yards by halftime, and 15 for 97 by game’s end. Tenth-year receiver Julian Edelman was so wobbly he caught seven passes for 107 yards by halftime, nine for 151 by game’s end.
Then there was Brady. A morning NFL Network report claimed Brady had been wobbled late in the season by a sprained knee ligament (MCL); the bye week allowed it to finally heal.
Whatever the case, Brady was magnificent against the Chargers, even by his own 18-year post-season standards.
In racking up career playoff victory No. 28, Brady completed 34 of 44 passing attempts for 343 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
He also set a new NFL career playoff record by extending his streak of interception-less passes to 227 by game’s end.
He has rarely looked better throughout a playoff win, and you know that’s saying something.
Conversely, Rivers can only wish he had such playoff passing acumen. In falling to 0-8 in his career against Brady, Rivers exhibited little patience to dinkand-dunk his way down the field, something Brady has specialized in for nearly two decades. Instead, Rivers insisted on trying to hit big plays. There just aren’t that many to be had in one game, especially against a Belichick defence.
It didn’t work on his first throw of the game, which fell incomplete. But it worked on his fourth throw of the game, when he connected with star receiver Keenan Allen for a 43-yard TD strike that tied it 7-7.
Thereafter, until garbage time in the fourth quarter, Rivers threw mostly reckless incompletions and near-interceptions on such hope-wrapped heaves.
On the day, Rivers completed fewer than half his throws — 25 of 51 for 331 yards, but only 121 by halftime — against a Patriots defence that was more than ready for his chance-taking.
In short, the 37-year-old got schooled by the 41-year-old.
Think that’ll quiet the critics? The Patriots don’t care.
“We’re going to be prepared and ready to go whether you pick us or don’t pick us,” ninth-year Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “But we see it. ‘Our quarterback’s too old, we’re not good enough on defence, our skilled players aren’t good.’ We’ll see it, but it doesn’t affect how we prepare.”
Added tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was mighty effective Sunday more as a run-blocker than a receiver, “We’ve been hearing things like that forever now. We just laugh at it. Whatever they say, and we just keep moving forward.”
Said receiver Phillip Dorsett, who caught Brady’s first touchdown throw: “Everybody does think we suck. Everybody thinks we don’t have enough. But the only thing that matters is what we think in this room, and we believe.”
Shades of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’.
That grater always blares out of the speakers at Gillette Stadium, as do so many overplayed classic rock anthems. One relic from REO Speedwagon that boomed just before kickoff hit closest to the point of the day: Roll With The Changes.
These Patriots are rolling into Kansas City.
And they do not suck.