Pa­tri­ots over­run Charg­ers

Team ef­fort sets up New Eng­land-KC AFC ti­tle game

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Mike Jones Colum­nist

FOXBOR­OUGH, Mass. – All sea­son long, we’ve looked for the signs. We’ve parsed words, try­ing to de­ci­pher body lan­guages and off-kil­ter per­for­mances.

There are cracks in the foun­da­tion, we’ve said, re­fer­ring to the Pa­tri­ots. After nearly two decades of dom­i­nance, with young, flashy stars work­ing their way into the spot­light and with Fa­ther Time un­de­feated, how could we not sense the end?

Bill Belichick’s group sel­dom has off­sea­son drama. There are never hic­cups through­out the sea­son, and cer­tainly not in the month of De­cem­ber. But this sea­son has fea­tured all of the above, and we’ve in­ter­preted such as vul­ner­a­bil­ity. We’ve imag­ined sce­nar­ios where the dynasty at last meets its end.

Then Sun­day hap­pens. Host­ing the Charg­ers in the di­vi­sional round of the NFL play­offs, the Pa­tri­ots roared out to a fast start and never looked back, post­ing an au­thor­i­ta­tive 41-28 vic­tory.

With said vic­tory, not only did they re­mind us of how silly we are to doubt them, but they also clinched their eighth con­sec­u­tive AFC Cham­pi­onship Game ap­pear­ance, ex­tend­ing their own record.

Belichick al­ways main­tains an emo­tion­less, un­flinch­ing de­meanor, and his play­ers of­ten fol­low suit. But there was in­deed an air of vin­di­ca­tion and amuse­ment after their dom­i­nant per­for­mance.

“You know, we’re not a very tal­ent-

ed team — ag­ing team — so, you know, we have to play with a lot of ef­fort,” long­time re­ceiver/spe­cial teams ace Matthew Slater said after the game, let­ting slip a sheep­ish grin. “I try to avoid that noise as much as I can, but it does creep in ob­vi­ously. We know how peo­ple feel about us, and that’s OK. We’ve had our strug­gles this year. You can’t re­ally take of­fense to that. You just have to work hard, put your­self in po­si­tion to be ef­fec­tive and take ad­van­tage of your op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“We’ve still got a lit­tle left in the tank,” Slater added with an­other smile.

In­deed, the Pa­tri­ots do. A tes­ta­ment of that: a first half that fea­tured as many points (35), yards (347) and first downs

(24) that some teams ac­cu­mu­late in an en­tire game, and a com­ple­men­tary de­fen­sive ef­fort that lim­ited the pre­vi­ously red-hot Charg­ers to seven points and six first downs.

If the Pa­tri­ots wanted to run, they ran, gain­ing gobs of yardage with ap­par­ent ease.

If they wanted to at­tack through the air, they did that too, with Brady shred­ding Los An­ge­les’ de­fense at will.

The de­fense ha­rassed Philip Rivers early and of­ten, and the vet­eran quar­ter­back had trou­ble hid­ing his frus­tra­tions.

At one point, the Pa­tri­ots, who after giv­ing up an early touch­down reeled off

31 unan­swered points, had more first downs (21) than the Charg­ers had of­fen­sive plays (20).

“We got plays from ev­ery­body,” Belichick said dryly at his news con­fer­ence, turn­ing ev­ery ques­tion about an in­di­vid­ual per­for­mance — even run­ning back Sony Michel’s 129-yard, three­touch­down out­put or wide re­ceiver Ju­lian Edel­man’s nine-catch, 151-yard day — into an over­all team state­ment.

“Ev­ery­body did a good job,” the coach con­tin­ued. “We threw the ball, we ran it, we played well in the kick­ing game, played well on de­fense.”

Sun­day re­minded us that Belichick re­mains the master of prepa­ra­tion. The bye week earned by fin­ish­ing as the AFC’s sec­ond seed af­forded the Pa­tri­ots’ ail­ing play­ers to heal up and recharge men­tally. But it also gave the coach­ing staff ad­di­tional time to as­sess and cor­rect their own weak­nesses while dis­sect­ing those of the Charg­ers.

In turn, the Pa­tri­ots came out and made it look easy while their vis­i­tors looked like a squad that didn’t even be­long in the post­sea­son.

“Ev­ery­body was just locked in,” de­fen­sive end Trey Flow­ers said. “The way this or­ga­ni­za­tion is ran as far as one game at a time, don’t look ahead, we un­der­stand what we had to do. Yeah, we had ad­ver­sity, but naw, never wor­ried. We know the type of guys we have in this locker room.

“You could say a lot of guys un­der­stand that we are doubted out and counted out, and you get a sense of mo­ti­va­tion and you’d like to prove peo­ple wrong, but we don’t rely on that be­cause what­ever hap­pens, if we do well, now they’re go­ing to count us in, and we can’t ride that roller coaster. We have to stay level headed. … I get a few laughs out of it.”

Now the Pa­tri­ots must leave the com­forts of Gil­lette Sta­dium, where they went 9-0 this sea­son. They’ll travel to a hos­tile Ar­row­head Sta­dium to take on the high-fly­ing Chiefs, who they al­ready con­quered in a 43-40 vic­tory in Week 4.

De­spite the con­vinc­ing win over the Charg­ers, how­ever, the Pa­tri­ots al­ready an­tic­i­pate ad­di­tional doubt about their ca­pa­bil­i­ties of play­ing as well in a top op­po­nent’s sta­dium (they were 3-5 on the road this sea­son).

“You know I know ev­ery­one thinks we suck and, you know, can’t win any games,” Tom Brady told the CBS cam­eras as he came off the field after the vic­tory. “So we’ll see. That’ll be fun.”

So keep on doubt­ing, the Pa­tri­ots say. We’re prob­a­bly mak­ing a mis­take if we do, but that’s just fine with them.

DAVID BUT­LER II/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Pa­tri­ots run­ning back Sony Michel left Charg­ers de­fen­sive play­ers be­hind as he rushed for 129 yards and 3 touch­downs.

DAVID BUT­LER II/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Charg­ers quar­ter­back Philip Rivers re­acts after one of his two sacks Sun­day but still threw for 331 yards and 3 TDs.

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