New Eng­land breezes to 8th con­sec­u­tive AFC ti­tle game, prov­ing it’s ‘got a lit­tle left’

Houston Chronicle - - SPORTS - By Bill Pen­ning­ton

» Tom Brady and Sony Michel help New Eng­land make its eighth con­sec­u­tive AFC ti­tle game.

FOXBOR­OUGH, Mass. — The essence of the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots’ reign as this cen­tury’s most suc­cess­ful NFL team has been their pe­cu­liar ca­pac­ity to feel smug and be­lit­tled at the same time.

It is a para­dox the Pa­tri­ots have put to good use at piv­otal times on the way to five Su­per Bowl vic­to­ries, win­ning some games be­cause of un­bri­dled con­fi­dence and oth­ers be­cause they be­lieved they were be­ing un­fairly dis­par­aged.

Sun­day’s 41-28 thrash­ing of the Los An­ge­les Charg­ers in an AFC di­vi­sional-round play­off game — the Pa­tri­ots led by 28 points at half­time — was con­spic­u­ously in the lat­ter cat­e­gory. After an un­even sea­son in which New Eng­land stum­bled through the fi­nal quar­ter of its sched­ule and many in the NFL com­mu­nity pre­pared an obit­u­ary for this dynasty, the Pa­tri­ots had built up a fair amount of right­eous in­dig­na­tion.

The re­sult Sun­day was a fu­ri­ous am­bush­ing of the vis­it­ing Charg­ers, a tal­ented team largely rel­e­gated to be­ing by­standers as New Eng­land scored 28 unan­swered points be­fore half­time to put the game vir­tu­ally out of reach. Proof of the Pa­tri­ots’ mind­set for the af­ter­noon came min­utes after the fi­nal whis­tle when quar­ter­back Tom Brady stared into a tele­vi­sion cam­era dur­ing an on-field in­ter­view.

“I know ev­ery­one thinks we suck and can’t win any games,” he said. “So we’ll see.”

Asked to elab­o­rate on his com­ments later, Brady grinned, paused and added: “I just like win­ning.”

Will be un­der­dog at K.C.

But he also had be­gun to brace for an­other week of feel­ing dis­re­spected; the Pa­tri­ots will travel to Kansas City to face the top-seeded, high-scor­ing Chiefs in the AFC cham­pi­onship game next week­end.

And they will be a pro­nounced un­der­dog.

“Yeah,” Brady said. “We’ll look for­ward to that.”

In­deed, they will. It is a rar­ity for a team com­pet­ing in its eighth con­sec­u­tive AFC con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship game to know it will be spend­ing the week fend­ing off scores of ques­tions about the of­fen­sive might and su­pe­rior skill set of the op­po­si­tion.

But these Pa­tri­ots, al­ways as­sured yet still vul­ner­a­ble, said they are used to it. Said tight end Rob Gronkowski: “We’ve been hear­ing that kind of stuff for years now. We laugh at it and keep mov­ing for­ward.”

How­ever the Pa­tri­ots-Chiefs matchup is ul­ti­mately per­ceived and an­a­lyzed in the com­ing week, New Eng­land un­doubt­edly fired an eye-catch­ing warn­ing shot across the bow of the re­main­ing NFL teams chas­ing a Su­per Bowl vic­tory.

The first in­di­ca­tion that the Pa­tri­ots meant busi­ness Sun­day came at the pregame coin toss. Coach Bill Belichick rarely elects to re­ceive the open­ing kick­off when his team wins the toss. This time, he did.

At that mo­ment, the Charg­ers, de­spite all their suc­cess this sea­son, should have known they were in trou­ble.

With sur­geon-like pre­ci­sion, Brady com­pleted 23 of his first 29 passes as the Pa­tri­ots scored touch­downs on each of their first four pos­ses­sions. After one punt, they scored an­other touch­down.

While Sun­day’s vic­tory was the Pa­tri­ots’ ninth suc­ces­sive post­sea­son win at Gil­lette Sta­dium, their ut­ter dom­i­nance of the Charg­ers was still some­what sur­pris­ing. Los An­ge­les’ of­fense and de­fense each ranked in the NFL’s top 10; just a week ago, the Charg­ers thor­oughly man­han­dled a stout Bal­ti­more Ravens team in the wild-card round.

But from the be­gin­ning Sun­day it was clear the Charg­ers were not play­ing Bal­ti­more’s one-di­men­sional of­fense or its rookie quar­ter­back, Lamar Jack­son.

Click­ing on all cylin­ders

It was also clear that Brady, who ap­peared to be slowed by a gimpy knee in the last quar­ter of the reg­u­lar sea­son, was more rested and that New Eng­land of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Josh McDaniels had de­vised an ef­fec­tive, mul­ti­fac­eted game plan to deal with the six- or seven-de­fen­sive­back zone de­fense the Charg­ers had used against the Ravens.

Brady, who com­pleted 34 of 44 passes Sun­day for 343 yards, threw only short passes to his wide re­ceivers and run­ning backs to start the game in a fast­paced at­tack that had the Charg­ers reel­ing. The Pa­tri­ots’ 14-play open­ing drive con­cluded when run­ning back Sony Michel rum­bled into the end zone for a 1-yard touch­down. It was the first of three first-half touch­downs for Michel, who rushed for 129 yards.

One of Brady’s main tar­gets through the air was Ju­lian Edel­man, who had nine re­cep­tions for a team-high 151 yards.

The Charg­ers tied the game in the first quar­ter on a 43-yard touch­down pass from quar­ter­back Philip Rivers to Keenan Allen. But it proved to be the high­wa­ter mark for Los An­ge­les, which ral­lied for three largely mean­ing­less touch­downs in the sec­ond half.

Rivers has never beaten Brady in eight tries dur­ing his ca­reer and de­feated the Pa­tri­ots only once when Brady was in­jured. Rivers is also now 0-3 against New Eng­land in the post­sea­son, in­clud­ing a de­feat in the AFC cham­pi­onship game in 2008.

“It was an emo­tional week — just be­ing back here after 11 years,” said Rivers, who com­pleted 25 of 51 passes for 331 yards. “It’s tough. It takes a long time to get back to the same spot. So it’s cer­tainly a dis­ap­point­ing fin­ish.”

As for the Pa­tri­ots, the vibe in their locker room after the game was, not sur­pris­ingly, a lit­tle swag­ger and a lit­tle de­fi­ance.

Vet­eran wide re­ceiver Matthew Slater made a sar­cas­tic joke about how the Pa­tri­ots were “ag­ing.” Asked what he re­ally meant by the re­mark, Slater smiled and an­swered: “That we’ve still got a lit­tle left in the tank.”

Adam Glanzman / Getty Images

The Pa­tri­ots’ Sony Michel beats the Charg­ers’ Casey Hay­ward to the py­lon on his way to scor­ing the sec­ond of three touch­downs.

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