FOXBOROUGH – Irresistible force, meet immovable object.
The Patriots hadn’t lost a game at Gillette Stadium during calendar year 2018, including last season’s playoffs and the entire 2018 regular season.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Chargers were victorious in all but one game played away from their home stadium this past regular season – and that one loss was to cross-town rivals, the L.A. Rams (the eventual No. 2 seed in the NFC, who’ll appear in next week’s NFC Championship Game).
Something had to budge when the two teams met Sunday afternoon in the Divisional Playoff. Recent history told us that the outcome might be a tossup to predict. New England was just the 13th team over the past decade to go undefeated at home during a regular season. Six of the previous 12 went on to lose their first game of the playoffs that same year.
New England hoped to avoid becoming the seventh by doing something they rarely do. After winning the coin toss, the Patriots chose to receive, rather than defer their choice to the second half. Perhaps this was head coach Bill Belichick’s way of sending a message to his troops.
“I think it is,” center/co-captain David Andrews stated. “We went out there and started fast. That’s what we wanted to do and were able to do it today. Those first few drives we played really well, exactly how we wanted to. When things are clicking like that, it’s a hard thing to stop.”
“As an offense, you get excited about that,” running back Rex Burkhead admitted later. “When Coach puts the ball in your hand, you feel like you’ve got to go out there and execute. Gives you a little extra energy when usually the preferred call is to defer. We just wanted to come out and start fast.”
“It was just like, ‘All right, we’re taking the ball. Let’s go offense!’” remarked cornerback Jason McCourty. “We just tried to feed of each other and play balanced football.”
QB Tom Brady and the offense then put together an efficient, 14-play scoring drive that chewed up half of the first quarter. It ended with rookie RB Sony Michel punching in his first postseason touchdown from a yard out.
Weather was a top talking point all week. While a winter storm blanketed the Midwest on Saturday, which affected the Colts-Chiefs game in Kansas City, the front moved just south of New England, hitting the Mid-Atlantic region, leaving Foxborough frigid, but sunny and dry.
High temperatures in the 20s didn’t seem to affect QB Philip Rivers and the L.A. offense, however, when they got the ball for their first possession. Rivers topped off a six-play drive in less than three minutes by throwing a 43-yard TD to a wide-open Keenan Allen to help knot the score at 7 apiece.
Michel and the Patriots O responded on the very next drive, with the rookie doubling his postseason TD tally with a 14-yard scamper at the end of a seven-play possession. Much of the yardage came from WR Julian Edelman, who found numerous openings in the Chargers’ secondary, but it was WR Phillip Dorsett who got open behind the defense to haul in the third Patriots TD of the first half. New England suddenly had a 21-7 lead with 12 minutes to play in the second quarter.
For the first time in Patriots playoff history, New England scored touchdowns on its first three possessions. It wasn't the weather as much as New England's near-flawless execution in the first half that doomed the Chargers Sunday.
“We just kept telling each other, ‘Keep the pedal down, keep moving forward, don’t let up.’” Burkhead continued. “Just because you know in the playoffs how games can go. Happens all the time where another team comes back, so, we really tried to focus on executing still.”
“Let’s keep this thing going. Let’s confuse him, let’s get on these guys. Let’s make it tough on them to get anything. That was our mentality going in,” added McCourty. “Let’s go out there and be aggressive, go play our game and see where it puts us. We were able to make some plays early. We did a good job of stopping the run and making them one-dimensional. Our offense as well – whenever we got a stop, they were able to put points on the board.”
Throughout the week, some analysts (including this one) asserted that the running game would be crucial to New England being able to control the game. That appeared to be the case in the first half. A 40-yard run by Michel, his longest of the season, followed by a pair of Burkhead carries upped the score to 28-7.
When L.A. finally forced a punt defensively, the Chargers returner muffed the ball and LB Albert McClellan – he of the two blocked punts earlier this season – recovered along the Patriots’ sideline. It was originally ruled L.A.’s ball, but replay review overturned the call on the field.
It was that kind of half for the Chargers. Michel barreled his way into the end zone from five yards out for his third scoring run of the half. He had more than 100 yards rushing before intermission. Edelman, meantime, eclipsed the century mark with 107 receiving yards on seven catches by halftime.
Although the Chargers finally put some points up in the second half, the outcome was essentially decided by the half. A Stephon Gilmore interception of Rivers with just over four minutes to play snuffed out any fading hopes the Chargers may have had.
“We understood we had to… not let [Rivers] be comfortable in the pocket, not allow him to step up [and throw], because he’s a great quarterback,” observed defensive end Trey Flowers. “We had to pressure him and I think we executed that well today. We had to bring our A-game and I think we did.”
The Patriots made their final home game of the 2018 season a joyous occasion. More importantly, they survived the Chargers without any obvious, significant health concerns.
Now, if they want to advance to yet another Super Bowl – their third straight appearance – they’ll have to do something they’ve not done well this year: Win a game on the road.
“Excited for the challenge,” declared Burkhead. “The Chiefs are a great team and we know that. We know [Arrowhead Stadium] is a tough place to play. They’re talented across the board, offensively and defensively, special teams-wise. We’re going to have to have a great week.”
“This is what you play for,” McCourty pointed out, “the opportunity to continue to play this time of year. Personally, team-wise, it’s a great accomplishment. For me, just trying to take it moment-by-moment. My wife texted me before the game and said, ‘However this thing shakes, just enjoy the moment.’ I’m very thankful for the guys in this locker room just to be able to be a part of this.
“Right now, it’s just a blessing to be able to come into work and prepare for it. We know we’re going against one of the best teams in our league, a [Chiefs] team that had the best record in the AFC. We know it’s going to be a very, very tough challenge on the road for us.”
“We’re happy to win. It’s hard to win in this league, especially in the playoffs against a team that hasn’t really lost on the road all year long,” special teams co-captain Matthew Slater told reporters at his locker. “We’ll enjoy it tonight – go with our wives, girlfriends, and kids – then we’ll be back in the lab tomorrow.
“It’ll be a tough game for us [at Kansas City], but we’ve got a lot of guys with a lot of character in this locker room. We have a lot of belief, so, we’ll see where that gets us.”