I mean honestly, should anyone really be surprised?
This has been the case every year, especially over the past half decade. The Patriots have some regular season struggles. They finish with a first-round bye thanks to their "weak division". Another AFC team gets hot and wins big games down the stretch and in the first or second rounds of the playoffs. Everyone in the national media picks that team to beat the Patriots and "end the dynasty". Said team then heads to Foxboro and gets utterly emasculated by Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
It's a tale as old as time.
The Chargers were the latest team to fall victim to the Patriots playoff buzzsaw. New England earned a chance to play for a Super Bowl berth for the eighth consecutive year after demolishing Los Angeles 41-28. The score doesn't even remotely tell the story, as the Patriots had an absolute and uncompromising grip on the game from the opening drive. The status remained in doubt until just over a minute left in the first quarter, and that is only because the Patriots took up half the quarter on their opening drive. Here are the highlights from the Patriots divisional round victory:
- Sony Michel and the Patriots running game dominated the Chargers defensive front all game long. Michel finished the first half alone with 15 carries for 100 yards and three touchdowns (he became the third Patriots running back to run for three touchdowns in one game). He looked unstoppable, beating Los Angeles with speed and power. Michel finished the game with 129 yards on 24 carries (5.4 y/c). Rex Burkhead added four carries for 12 yards, and James Develin had another five of his own, one of which came on a third-down run early in the third quarter. While it wasn't quite a "balanced" offensive attack, New England's ability to run all over the Chargers despite LA daring them to do so shows that it could be the reason they hoist another Lombardi trophy.
- The Patriots offensive line deserves a huge shoutout. Their run blocking was brilliant. They had a natural size advantage on LA because of how many defensive backs the Chargers used. However, defensive backs have a speed advantage. New England's linemen handled that extremely well, even when blocking out in space. David Andrews and Joe Thuney specifically had some beautiful blocks at the second level.
- The Patriots offensive line also had arguably their best game of the season in pass protection. Tom Brady was not sacked once and received next to no serious pressure all game. The Chargers do not blitz often, which certainly helped. However, they have two of the best pass rushers in the game. Despite that, Brady was kept upright all game long.
- Julian Edelman didn't seem to be a big fan of everyone doubting the Patriots. He decided to make everyone eat their words by completely emasculating the Chargers. The Pats receiver finished with nine catches for 151 yards, looking basically uncoverable all game long. It wasn't always just the yards either; it was how he got the yards. On the Patriots drive, Edelman caught a ball short of the first down but broke through two Chargers defenders to dive an extra four yards to reach the marker. He refused to go down easily, showing a fight and drive that the Chargers never exhibited.
- Rob Gronkowski will not get much credit in this game because he only had one catch. That is entirely unfair because his blocking against the Chargers was phenomenal. Gronkowski dominated LA both on the edge and out in space, clearing the way for New England's running backs. He will be the Patriots most important weapon going forward, and not the least of which because of his blocking.
- James White was the Patriots MVP of the day, finishing with an NFL record 15 catches for 97 yards. LA had no answers for the Patriots running back. White was more than just a check down for Brady, he was the primary target on a number of passes. The Patriots knew that White had a quickness advantage, and their strategy was to simply get him out in space. He may be one of the most underrated weapons in the NFL.
- Remember when Tom Brady was too old and wouldn't be able to lead the Patriots on another playoff run? Well, he finished with 343 yards on 34/44 passing (77%) with one touchdown and zero interceptions. He was immaculate and played with a fire that we haven't seen quite as much this season. It may still be too early to call his demise.
- Stephon Gilmore deservedly caught a lot of flack early on in the game. He completely blew a coverage, leaving Keenan Allen wide open for a touchdown. However, he had an absolutely brilliant game after that, locking down Keenan Allen and finishing with an interception and two passes defended. If he can continue to play at that level in man coverage, the Patriots could make a run.
- The rest of the Patriots secondary played well too. While Phillip Rivers did throw for 331 yards, much of that came in garbage time (which was nearly the entire second half), when the Patriots were managing the clock more. He threw less than 50% on the day. Jason McCourty let up a couple of crucial third-down catches, but also had some solid passes defended. Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung were the Patriots leading tacklers and helped prevent many huge plays by the Chargers.
- JC Jackson deserves a special shoutout. After Jason McCourty gave up a third and fifteen reception to Mike Williams early, Belichick moved Jackson onto the former Clemson wideout. Jackson had a fantastic day against a talented receiver, with two passes defended. Belichick's bold choices and faith in his players regardless of status paid off once again.
- New England's pass rush had one of it's better games of the season. They sacked Rivers twice and had consistent pressure on him from the start of the game. The Patriots front seven abused Rivers, hitting him after most of his throws. They likely would have finished with more sacks if Rivers was not a savvy veteran who knew to get the ball out in time. Dont'a Hightower was one notable name who kept getting in on Rivers.
- Trey Flowers continued to prove that he is a star in the league. He had one sack and would have had a second if not for an iffy roughing the passer call (it appeared like Flowers was blocked into Rivers legs). However, he was within inches of Rivers multiple times and forced the Chargers quarterback into errant throws.
The Patriots decimated the Chargers, and are just one win away from their third consecutive Super Bowl appearance. The only thing standing in their way? The Kansas City Chiefs, the presumed MVP Patrick Mahomes, and Arrowhead stadium.