For the eighth straight season the Patriots are headed to the AFC Championship Game, this time by virtue of a thoroughly dominant 41-28 victory over the visiting Los Angeles Chargers. For Tom Brady this marks his 13th trip to the conference title game in his 18 full seasons (excluding 2008) as the Patriots starting quarterback.
Brady was immense, completing 34 of 44 passes for 343 yards and a touchdown as he riddled the Chargers zones with short, quick passes just past the line of scrimmage. The defense held up its end of the bargain with lots of pressure on Philip Rivers to go with solid work against the run.
The Patriots offense turned in its strongest performance of the season thanks to a mix of short, quick passes early on and the running of Sony Michel thereafter. Tom Brady rarely threw the ball much beyond the line of scrimmage in the first quarter but his targets found plenty of running room anyway. Dump-offs to James White (six catches, 42 yards) and Julian Edelman (four catches, 59 yards) allowed the Patriots to keep the Chargers off balance while Michel chipped in with 43 yards on nine carries. He also added a pair of touchdowns in the opening quarter as the Patriots held a 14-7 lead after 15 minutes.
Defensively the Patriots overcame an early blunder and completely shut down the Chargers attack. Keenan Allen got the better of Stephon Gilmore with a double move and caught an easy 43-yard touchdown from Philip Rivers to tie the game at 7, but from there it was over. The Patriots got consistent pressure on Rivers with simple four-man front, causing him to throw many passes before he wanted to. Melvin Gordon was never a factor and finished the half with 17 yards on just six carries. Rivers completed only seven of his 16 passes for 121 yards and a touchdown, but most of that damage was done on Allen’s busted coverage. The Chargers finished with 128 total yards and six first downs before the break while the Patriots piled up 347 yards and 24 first downs.
Rivers seemed determined to push the ball downfield throughout the day, and aside from the touchdown to Allen wasn’t very successful doing so. The main reason for that was the pressure provided by the Patriots front, but the secondary also made life difficult on the Chargers receivers. Only Mike Williams had any consistent success as he got the better of rookie J.C. Jackson a few times. Rivers did hit on a couple of late deep balls, one to Tyrell Williams for 29 yards and a few plays later to Allen for 32 yards down to the Patriots 1. But Rivers was unable to make enough connections on the deep shots earlier in the game to make it competitive.
The second half amounted to little more than extended garbage time but there was an interesting play toward the end of the third quarter that Bill Belichick opted to challenge. Mike Williams caught a 15-yard pass to the Patriots 17, but the receiver appeared to lose the ball before being down by contact. However, Williams clearly recovered the loose ball anyway, so it didn’t seem to be worth taking a second look. Belichick threw the red flag anyway, and replays showed Williams did in fact fumble, but referee Ron Torbert explained that because there was no clear recovery by New England and therefore the Patriots lost the challenge despite being correct about the fumble.
Sony Michel ran for 129 yards and had three touchdowns.
New England will play at Kansas City in next week’s AFC title game. The Patriots beat the Chiefs 43-40 in Foxborough in Week 6. It is the 13th conference championship game appearance by the Patriots during the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era.
“It’s going to be a good game,” Brady said of the rematch with the Chiefs. “They’re a good team. We played them earlier this year. I know everybody thinks we suck and, you know, we can’t win any games, so we’ll see. It’ll be fun.”
The Chargers, meanwhile, haven’t reached the AFC title game since the 2007 season. Brady finished 34 of 44 for 343 yards and a touchdown. He improves to 8-0 as a starter against Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who drops to 1-8 against New England all-time.
Rivers finished 25 of 51 for 331 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. He is 0-5 in games played in Foxborough, including 0-3 in the postseason.
James White tied Darren Sproles’ NFL postseason record with 15 catches, totaling 97 yards. New England scored on their first four possessions of the game to build a 35-7 halftime lead.
“We dug ourselves a hole in the first half,” the Chargers head coach, Anthony Lynn, said. “One game doesn’t define where we are as a football team.”