Foxborough, MA— For the poor, lost souls on the Los Angeles Chargers sideline, this must have been what it was like to be a farmer in 1831, the first time you saw Mr. McCormick’s reaping machine go through a wide field of wheat. New England coach Bill Belichick dipped deeply into the dark magic that is his during the midwinter months and, his team having won the toss, he elected to receive the opening kickoff, which is not something he does very often. Los Angeles kicked off and New England’s James Develin muffed the knuckler out of bounds at the Patriots 17-yard line.
And that’s when the big blades began to spin.
Relentlessly and mercilessly, the Patriots held the ball for over seven minutes. They ran 14 plays. Tom Brady threw eight passes and completed six of them. Rookie running back Sony Michel, whom we will get to anon, ran for 16 yards. James White, the other running back, caught five passes. Finally, Michel cracked over the left side of the line and New England had a 7-0 lead. Los Angeles came back and tied the game on its first possession, but then the great blades began to grind and slice again. Brady completed four in a row and Michel broke loose for a 14-yard touchdown. At 14-7, the field already was looking rather clear all the way to Kansas City next week.
The game ended up at 41-28, but New England’s actual margin of superiority far exceeded its margin of victory. Last week, the Chargers threw seven or eight defensive backs at Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson on every play and completely befuddled the rookie for three-and-a-half quarters. They tried something similar on Sunday. However, when Jackson was born in January of 1997, Brady was buried on the depth chart of a Michigan team that won the national championship. You may have noticed that several things have happened in Brady’s career since then. He wasn’t going to get fooled by these kinds of shenanigans. He simply riddled the L.A. secondary with slants and out-routes to Julian Edelman, who caught nine passes for 151 yards, and with flips and screens to his backs, especially White, who caught 15 for 97 yards, tying an NFL playoff record for receptions.
“They play a lot of zone,” said White. “So, as running backs, we have a lot of opportunities to catch the football, so you want to catch the ball, and get vertical, and get as many yards as you can.”
“I was expecting to see [Brady’s] best today,” said Los Angeles coach Anthony Lynn. “It’s playoff time and he’s been here before and he’s one of the best that’s ever been out on that football field.” As is his wont, Belichick was equally expansive.
“We got good performances from every area,” he said. “I’d have to go back and look at the film but we obviously we did a lot of good things in all three areas.” Somebody get a firehose and cool that man down.
By halftime, with the Patriots leading, 35-7, it was plain that Los Angeles had no Plan B. They were simply going to get chipped and chopped and threshed to smithereens for the rest of the afternoon and there was absolutely nothing they could do about it. It was such a thoroughgoing demolition that Tom Brady, of all living souls, decided to poor-mouth his team on national television.
"Everybody thinks we suck and can't win any games,” Brady told Tracy Wolfson of CBS. Honestly, Tom. Take a knee, big guy. But the fact that he was loose enough to crack wise at the end of the game was a good indication that he finally has the variety of weapons with which Brady is most comfortable.
“You can’t be one-dimensional in these kind of games,” he said later. “It’s too tough against too many good teams. You get to this point and there’s very little margin for error and you’re going to have to be good in all phases, and now we have to do it again.”
“Each week is different,” James White said. “We attack each defense a different way. It could be that someone has a big game one week and the next week, you get two targets. So what? You just go out there and play and hope you get a win.”
In fact, the Patriots, now rested and relatively injury-free, remain a dangerous opponent in a one-and-done format. One of the reasons they have become so is the development of a more than decent power running game. “You know, we went little, like we did last week some, but that running game was just too physical,” Lynn said. And one of the big reasons for that improvement is the rookie from Georgia, who had himself a podium moment on Sunday.
He took the podium looking like a man who’d climbed down off the thresher—yellow plaid shirt and denim jacket. Sony Michel didn’t get much post-game podium time this year; he’s a rookie, and rookies don’t get podium time in Foxborough. (Occasionally, they are mistaken for being mute.) Early in his career, Brady eschewed the podium, thinking it pretentious and that it served to remove himself unacceptably from his teammates. This went on until the crowds around his locker became too big for his immediate neighbors to dress themselves. However, Michel earned himself a podium moment on Sunday.
What has become clear over the last couple of months of the season is that Michel is the X-factor on this edition of the Patriots. Against Los Angeles, he carried the ball 24 times for 129 yards and three touchdowns. “I really love Sony as a person and for his commitment to the team,” Brady said. “He’s been a lot of fun to be out there with. He’s making a lot of hard yards and he had a great game today.”
At 5'11" and 215 pounds, Michel runs with surprising power. “He’s got great vision,” said New England guard Shaq Mason. “You can see him make these little moves.” Defenders rarely get a clean shot at him and, when they do, he bounces off them, always moving forward. Despite his three touchdowns, Michel’s signature moment came in the second quarter. With eight minutes left in the half, and New England’s having built a 21-7 lead, Michel found a lane behind Mason who’d sealed off the entire middle of the Charger defense. He waited for center David Andrews to get downfield to take care of a safety and then took off for 40 yards until Derwin James caught him from behind.
“It’s all about trust and patience,” said Michel. “You know, we’ve got to have faith that the coach is calling the best play possible and that guys are going to take pride in executing the play—the offensive line, the receivers, that everybody is going to do their job.
“The 40-yard run? It was all caused by the great blocking that happened, from the offensive linemen to the receivers, doing their jobs, and it was a wide-open hole. Anybody could have run through it. There really wasn’t any reason why I couldn’t have scored, but it played out like it played out. There are great players on the other side of the ball, and they made a great play, but it was a great team gain.”
When the Patriots drafted Michel last spring, he came into the league with a reputation for fumbling, and fumbling in New England will not get you podium moments. It will get you bus station moments. Ball security, they say in Foxborough, is job security. So Michel came into his first professional season with a number of eyes looking sideways at him. And, over 200-odd carries this year, he has fumbled once.
“He’s been steady Eddie,” said Matthew Slater, the New England special-teams captain and the closest thing the team has to a non-Brady spokesperson. “Sony’s been a great addition, a great kid. He just keeps his head down and works hard and it’s nice to see that hard work pay off. He’s a big part of what we do, as you saw today.”
On Michel’s third touchdown, he disappeared into the line at the Los Angeles five-yard line. The pile, however kept moving like one big ball of energy. Develin and Rob Gronkowski were blasting away in front of him, while Mason and Marcus Cannon and a couple of other people were shoving away behind. Eventually, Michel popped out clean in the end zone. There were about seven Patriots who deserved credit for the touchdown—the ballcarrier and the ballcarrier carriers.
“Hey,” said Cannon. “It’s a team game, right?” And you could almost feel the big blades spinning, silent and ceaseless, for another week at least.