All those re­ports of Pa­tri­ots’ death? An ex­ag­ger­a­tion.

The Washington Post - - SPORTS - Sally Jenk­ins

foxbor­ough, mass. — It was 20 de­grees in Gil­lette Sta­dium, ac­cord­ing to the newly in­stalled ther­mome­ter that the light and breezy Los An­ge­les Charg­ers had to run past in the tun­nel, onto a field clouded by the white frost ex­haled from about 66,000 shout­ing mouths. Even colder, though, were the freez­ing hearts of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and the rest of these AFC cham­pi­onship game-bound New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots, those ice­trapped fos­sils.

This past week, when he was asked whether it ever gets tire­some pre­par­ing for high­stakes post­sea­son games,

Belichick just replied in that dead-leaves-tum­bling-down-as­treet voice: “Sorry to put you through it. Nor­mal week for us.” Just an­other nor­mal week of game-plan­ning for an op­po­nent’s weak­ness like a win­ter preda­tor pick­ing meat off a bone. Just an­other nor­mal week of cold, mech­a­nis­tic ex­cel­lence that re­sulted in a de­con­struc­tion of the flimsy Charg­ers by half­time, leav­ing only the ques­tion of how bad the fi­nal math would be (41-28). Just an­other nor­mal week in the life of this sup­pos­edly dy­ing colos­sus, with its per­mafrost coach and 41-yearold quar­ter­back, who are now in their eighth straight AFC cham­pi­onship game and 13th in 19 sea­sons to­gether.

Wasn’t there some­thing al­most taunt­ing in the Pa­tri­ots’ per­for­mance? It had a told-youso qual­ity, com­ing as it did in the face of all the ex­pert con­clu­sions that this wasn’t the same old im­preg­nable fran­chise, that its 11-5 record was un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally trou­bled, that “we suck and can’t win any games,” as Brady said. Brady’s num­bers were down, Rob Gronkowski was mulling re­tire­ment with just three touch­downs all sea­son, the de­fense was un­even, and the Pa­tri­ots had lacked a cer­tain killer in­stinct in that bizarre, brain-dead loss at Mi­ami in Week 14 that de­nied them the AFC’s top seed. Maybe they had been passed by; maybe they didn’t have enough juice any­more. “Ev­ery­body thinks we don’t have enough,” wide re­ceiver Phillip Dorsett said.

Did all the pre­ma­ture pre­dic­tions of his demise make it sweeter? Brady pursed his lips and took a mo­ment to re­spond. “I just like win­ning,” he said, mean­ing­fully. “Just like win­ning.”

There was some­thing dis­mis­sive — wasn’t there? — about the way the Pa­tri­ots han­dled the Charg­ers’ vaunted seven-de­fen­sive-back zone de­fense. Yes, yes, there was. The Charg­ers were road-tested, with an 8-1 record away from home, and had the el­e­gant Philip Rivers, the best quar­ter­back of his gen­er­a­tion who hasn’t won the Su­per Bowl. But the Pa­tri­ots blew them apart as if they were made of Pop­si­cle sticks and paste. “We got our butts kicked,” Charg­ers Coach An­thony Lynn ad­mit­ted. Brady jabbed holes in the zone with screens to James White (15 catches), go­ing 34 for 44 for 343 yards on the day. Sony Michel kicked and thrashed to 129 rush­ing yards, most of them in the first half, and three touch­downs.

“Played the way we wanted to play,” cen­ter David An­drews said.

There wasn’t any­thing fancy to it. It was just a clas­sic game plan and im­pec­ca­ble ex­e­cu­tion against that zone de­fense. “You got to put your hand down and make yards the old-fash­ioned way,” Gronkowski said. “We went out there, and we were just driv­ing the ball from the very be­gin­ning. It was no gimmes. . . . We just kept ex­e­cut­ing and grind­ing and pound­ing the ball.”

The Charg­ers were in trou­ble as soon as the Pa­tri­ots opened the game with that gut punch of a drive, mov­ing sys­tem­at­i­cally down the field in well-con­trolled in­cre­ments, 14 plays of solid ex­e­cu­tion that ate up more than seven min­utes be­fore Michel bull-charged into the end zone from the 1 to com­plete the 83yard ef­fort.

When the Charg­ers took just six plays to re­spond, with Rivers throw­ing a 43-yard half-moon scor­ing pass to Keenan Allen, it promised to be the close game ev­ery­one ex­pected. For a minute.

Then the Pa­tri­ots scored 31 straight points.

There went Michel, bust­ing around a cor­ner on a 14-yard scor­ing run. Here came Brady, look­ing off the en­tire Charg­ers de­fense by star­ing at the mid­dle as if he were go­ing to throw short, only to lift his eyes and fling a beau­ti­ful rib­bon to Dorsett in the cor­ner of the end zone for a 15-yard score.

It went on and on: The Pa­tri­ots racked up 24 first downs in the half to just six for the Charg­ers. They were 5 for 5 in the red zone. They punted just once in the en­tire half. Their stat sheet for just two quar­ters looked like a game sum­mary. It was as com­plete and thor­ough of a play­off vic­tory as they have de­liv­ered in their long, tri­umphant his­tory of five Su­per Bowl wins. And it firmly shut up all the talk that they’re done.

“If it was go­ing by what peo­ple said, there would be no rea­son to play the game,” de­fen­sive end Trey Flow­ers said. “We let the pads talk. We let the score­board talk. That’s our motto.”

The Pa­tri­ots have not lost a play­off game at Gil­lette Sta­dium since 2013, and they were un­de­feated at home this sea­son. Next week will be a dif­fer­ent propo­si­tion, of course: They will have to go to Kansas City and face the Chiefs and their elec­tric kid, 23-year-old Patrick Ma­homes, in a re­match of per­haps the best game of the reg­u­lar sea­son, won by the Pa­tri­ots, 43-40. There will be more talk of young and old, of who is close to be­ing done and who is just get­ting started.

The mere prospect of it brought out a clas­sic Pa­tri­ots re­sponse. It has long been the Pa­tri­ots’ way to fo­cus short­sight­edly, to live purely in the mo­ment. “Was that in Oc­to­ber? Novem­ber? I don’t re­mem­ber,” Brady said of the teams’ pre­vi­ous meet­ing. (It was in Oc­to­ber, just for the record.) They haven’t won as much as they have by dwelling on their re­sults and study­ing yes­ter­day’s scores, by con­sid­er­ing them­selves time-frozen im­mor­tals, even though they are.

“What­ever hap­pened some other year, that’s in the books,” Belichick said. “This team’s got a lot in front of it.”

STEVEN SENNE/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

De­fen­sive end Trey Flow­ers and his Pa­tri­ots team­mates ha­rassed Charg­ers quar­ter­back Philip Rivers through­out Sun­day’s matchup.

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