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.
Here are some observations from the Patriots best performance of the year as they prepare to travel to Kansas City next week.
-The 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.
-After watching the Chargers bewilder the Ravens with defensive alignments that included extra defensive backs a week earlier, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was ready for the same looks on Sunday. As L.A. insisted on playing soft zones with six and seven defensive backs on the field, McDaniels had Tom Brady pick the secondary apart. Edelman was the main recipient in the first half with seven catches for 107 yards, most of which came against soft zones rather than man-to-man coverage from Desmond King. Michel also took advantage of the light fronts, ripping off a career-best 40-yard run in the second quarter and finished the half with 105 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Gus Bradley's defense continued with the cover-3 looks and the Patriots mercilessly took it apart and finished half with a commanding 35-7 lead.
-In addition to the production, the Patriots also managed to chew up large chunks of time in doing so. The first touchdown drive featured 14 plays and took 7:11 off the clock, and that came after the Patriots won the coin toss and chose to take the ball for just the second time this season. New England also opened the second half with another 14-play drive, this one consuming 7:22 and ending with a Stephen Gostkowski field goal. It was total domination.
-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.
-Belichick won a challenge late in the first half after it appeared the offense would be stopped for the first time of the game. Ryan Allen's punt was muffed by Desmond King and recovered near the sideline by Albert McClellan. The call on the field was that the ball went out of bounds, but the officials took another look and ruled that McClellan was in bounds and gave the Patriots possession at the Chargers 35. Four plays later, Michel rammed it in from 5 yards out for his third touchdown and a 35-7 Patriots lead.
-Brady was surgical at times, not so much with his precision passing as with his preparation and anticipation. He carved up Bradley's zones with a variety of short throws that kept the Chargers guessing. Early in the fourth quarter he found Chris Hogan for a 4-yard gain, giving him 227 consecutive postseason passes without an interception, which is an NFL record.
-Shortly before the inactives were announced there was a tweet suggesting that Deatrich Wise's ankle hadn't responded well to treatment. About an hour later he was among those on the list, joining Obi Melifonwu, Stephen Anderson, Keionta Davis, James Ferentz, Ufomba Kamalu and Duke Dawson. It was the first time in Wise's two-year career that he was inactive for a game. Adrian Clayborn took his place in the lineup after being a healthy scratch the last two games of the regular season. Anderson was elevated from the practice squad during the week when Jacob Hollister was placed on injured reserve but the tight end was inactive as well.