FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It was shortly after noon on Sunday when Tom Brady jogged out onto the field at Gillette Stadium while Jay-Z’s “Public Service Announcement” blared, as is his custom. But instead of stopping midway up the sideline, as he had been doing the past few weeks, Brady continued to run up the whole length of the field.
“I think he was pretty juiced up today,” said backup QB Brian Hoyer, who jogs alongside Brady.
One possible reason: NFL Network reported shortly before kickoff that Brady had been dealing with an MCL sprain for several weeks of the regular season, but he felt healthy after the first-round playoff bye. But also notable is the ability of the 41-year-old five-time Super Bowl champion, who was playing in his ninth straight divisional-round playoff game, to find an advantage no matter how automatic or routine his success may appear to the rest of us.
That much was confirmed just seconds after Brady and the Patriots completed their 41–28 win against the Chargers, sending them to a nearly unfathomable eighth straight AFC title game. “I know everyone thinks we suck and can’t win any games, so we’ll see,” Brady told CBS’ Tracy Wolfson, when asked about the upcoming conference championship.
Whatever it takes, right?
This season the Patriots will have to travel for the AFC championship, playing next Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the top-seeded Chiefs. New England is 3–5 on the road this season, and they haven’t advanced to the Super Bowl when playing the AFC title game on the road since the 2004 season. But despite these factors working against them, the team has every reason to feel optimistic. Against the Chargers, with Brady perhaps healthier than he has been in several weeks, and with the team having the chance to regroup mentally and physically during the first-round bye, New England looked the best it has all season at the most important time.
The standard line out of the Patriots’ locker room is that they are self-motivated and unbothered by anything that’s said about them outside the building, which explains why it was notable that Brady, as well as the leader of the defense, safety Devin McCourty, mentioned the external doubts about the Patriots’ ability to contend for another title.
“We see it,” McCourty said. “We see our quarterback’s too old, we’re not good enough on defense, the skill players aren’t good.”
Some of this criticism seemed fair, particularly as the Patriots faltered down the stretch of the season, losing two of their final four games and needing the Texans’ loss at Philadelphia in Week 16 to secure their usual first-round bye. But then the Patriots came out steamrolling a confident and talented Chargers team, posting a 35–7 lead by halftime.
Few expected this game, with a Chargers team that won more games in the regular season than the Patriots, to get out of hand as quickly as it did. New England broke from one of their own tendencies, choosing to take the ball first rather than to defer to the second half. Even Chargers QB Philip Rivers seemed somewhat surprised by this decision, replying to the referee, “what, did they say they want it?” before choosing a direction to kick. Patriots center David Andrews said there was a message behind Bill Belichick’s decision to take the ball—they wanted to get off to a fast start.
That first drive did, indeed, set a tone: A 14-play, 83-yard march that drained almost half of the first quarter, ending in a one-yard touchdown run by rookie Sony Michel. Left tackle Trent Brown said the Patriots wanted to play physical from start to finish and “establish dominance, and keep it going for 60 minutes.”
“Imposing your will,” Brown continued. “You kind of just want to maybe get in guys’ minds a little, to maybe [where] they want to think about coming on the field. Dang, we gotta go back out here, you know?”
A rash of injuries at linebacker this season forced them to lean on a defensive lineup using six and seven defensive backs, which worked well last week against Baltimore. But the Patriots were able to control the line of scrimmage, amassing 155 yards on the ground, plus four rushing touchdowns. Michel, who scored three times, averaged more than five yards per carry.
The Chargers had roster limitations that in part dictated their personnel packages, but perhaps their most costly decision was not mixing up their zone coverage. That’s the foundation of Gus Bradley’s defensive scheme, so the team opted to stick with its identity, but that leaves voids for a quarterback like Brady to deliver the ball into.
“You know where the holes are, and you try to exploit them, and that’s what we did today,” receiver Philip Dorsett said. He added that the Chargers mixed some more man coverage in during the second half—but by then, the Chargers were already in a four-score hole.
It was on Dorsett’s 15-yard touchdown catch early in the second quarter when things began to snowball, a play on which the Chargers secondary lost track of Dorsett when he ran a combination route with Julian Edelman. “We were working on that play the whole week,” he said. The Patriots hadn’t scored on two straight drives to open a game all season—and on Sunday, they ended up scoring on four straight. The first time they punted was late in the second quarter, and Chargers returner Desmond King ended up muffing the catch, giving the ball right back to New England in Los Angeles’ territory. They scored another touchdown four plays later, building that 35–7 halftime lead.
It was an advantage the Chargers could not overcome.
“Nothing magical,” Andrews said. “Just a lot of hard work.”
That’s the thing about the Patriots this millennium—the magic has long since worn off, but they always seem to be able to find an edge.
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