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The biggest takeaways from the Patriots’ 41-28 win over Chargers

The New England Patriots will play for the AFC championship next weekend, for the eighth consecutive time. They advanced with a masterful 41-28 dismantling of the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday in Gillette Stadium and, really, by the third quarter you could see Bill Belichick thinking, “We’re on to Kansas City.”

Tom Brady was already moving forward, thinking about the Chiefs with that patented chip on his shoulder during a postgame television interview. “They’re a good team. We played 'em earlier this year. I know everyone thinks we suck and can’t win any games, so we’ll see,” Brady told CBS’s Tracy Wolfson. “It’ll be fun.”

Here are the biggest takeaways from Sunday’s win, followed by a look at the game’s key plays.

Here we go again: The last time the two teams played, the Patriots edged the Chiefs, 43-40, in one of the most exciting games of the season. Can New England do it again? It was the first loss of the season for Kansas City, and as good as the Patriots’ defense looked Sunday against the Chargers, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs' offense is a different beast.

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The last time they met, Stephen Gostkowski hit a 28-yard field goal for the win as time expired. Brady passed for 340 yards and the Patriots led 24-9 at halftime, but the Chiefs' offense carved up the Patriots' defense to claw its way back into the game. Sony Michel, just as he did against the Chargers on Sunday, had a big game, with 24 carries for 106 yards and two touchdowns. Mahomes passed for 352 yards that time, hitting Tyreek Hill with three of his four touchdown passes. CBS’s Tony Romo thinks the difference-maker in next week’s title game matchup is Belichick.

“This is a real Belichick special,” Romo said on the broadcast. “He’s got to come up with something incredible, I really believe, for them to go into Kansas City and win. Can he? Absolutely. But it’s got to be something special.”

A Gronk reminder: Rob Gronkowski may or may not retire after this season, but his presence in Sunday’s win came as a formidable blocker rather than a pass catcher. He was a big help in paving the way for rookie Michel, who finished with 129 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries. Gronk was only targeted once, but he caught that pass and flashed his big-play ability, rumbling for a 25-yard gain.

The bye week matters: Clearly, there’s something to the Patriots’ mystique with a week off. During a near-perfect first half, they reminded everyone that they’re postseason vampires. You really have to drive a stake through their hearts to stop them. We’ll see if the Chiefs are up to the task next week.

Brady was excellent from the start: Brady began Sunday’s game hot, completing 23 of 29 passes for 233 yards in the first half. He finished the game with 34 of 44 passing for 343 yards and a touchdown. He’ll look to keep that momentum going next week.

Chargers bemoan cruel fate: It’s a shame for Los Angeles that this one went the way it did. This was one of Philip Rivers’s best teams, but ending up as the fifth seed meant they had to face the Patriots on the road despite having the superior won-lost record in the regular season. It was a disappointing loss after an impressive wild-card victory over Baltimore last week.

Key plays

Something for Gates: Philip Rivers hit Antonio Gates with an eight-yard touchdown pass with 59 seconds left and the two-point conversion failed. (41-28, New England, 59 seconds fourth quarter)

Chargers cut into lead: Philip Rivers has been battered by the Patriots defense and is clearly in pain, but he managed to hit Melvin Gordon on a 32-yard pass to the 1-yard line with 7:46 left. He connected with Virgil Green with a touchdown pass, cutting into the Patriots' lead, and then the Chargers completed the two-point conversion play. (41-22, New England, 7:36 fourth quarter)

Plus three: The Patriots added a 30-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski after a drive that included a stellar catch from Julian Edelman, who is over 150 yards receiving for the day. (41-14, New England, 12:23 fourth quarter)

Another FG: Stephen Gostkowski expands the Patriots' lead with a 30-yard field goal. (41-41, New England)

Melvin Gordon scores: The Chargers managed a drive as the third quarter was winding down and Rivers’s frustration was on full display, especially after a Stephon Gilmore holding call that caused him to appear to yell “they’re doing it on every play!” Melvin Gordon scored on a 1-yard run. It was the Chargers' first touchdown since their opening drive. (41-14, New England, 1:16 third quarter)

A lead grows: Would it surprise you to know that, after the Chargers' first drive of the second half fizzled, the Patriots picked up where they left off in the first half?

The offense controlled the ball for nearly half of the third quarter and their drive ended with a 28-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski. (38-14, New England, 6:34 third quarter)

New England takes a 35-7 lead into halftime: After everything went Philip Rivers’s way against the Ravens, the Chargers quarterback was frustrated and frazzled against New England. While the Patriots were scoring five touchdowns, Los Angeles could come up with only five first downs. What have been the biggest factors?

A Gronk reminder: Rob Gronkowski may or may not retire after this season, but his presence in the first half came as a formidable blocker rather than a pass catcher. He’s been a big help in paving the way for rookie running back Sony Michel, who has rushed 16 times for 105 yards and three touchdowns.

The bye week matters: Clearly, there’s something to the Patriots' mystique with a week off. They’ve been rolling in the first half and have reminded everyone that they’re postseason zombies. You really have to drive a stake through their hearts to stop them. Kansas City may well do that next week, if New England finishes this one off with a win.

Brady’s near-perfect start: Tom Brady completed 23 of 29 passes for 233 yards in the first half. This after he spent last week working on his mechanics with his quarterback maestro, Tom House.

Michel scores third TD of first half: The Patriots capitalized on a fumble recovery by Albert McClellan and marched right down the field for the third touchdown run of the first half by Sony Michel, who was helped into the end zone by the blocking of Rob Gronkowski. (35-7, New England, 1:43 second quarter)

Rolling: The Patriots' offense remains finely tuned, with another touchdown drive. The latest, which was capped with a 6-yard touchdown run by Rex Burkhead, went six plays and 82 yards, taking up over three minutes. With Rob Gronkowski doing some fine blocking, Burkhead scooted into the end zone with 6:04 left in the second quarter. The Patriots have rolled up 286 yards of offense, with over six minutes left in the half. (28-7, New England, 6:04 second quarter)

There they go again: Tom Brady hit Phillip Dorsett with a 15-yard touchdown pass with 12:17 left in the second quarter, giving the Patriots a 21-7 lead and sending the Chargers' defensive coaches back to the drawing board. That’s the first time in the Patriots' extensive playoff history that they’ve scored on their first three possessions of a game.

For Brady, the score marks the 13th consecutive postseason game with a touchdown pass, tying Dan Marino and Peyton Manning for the third-longest streak all time. (21-7, New England, 12:17 second quarter)

More Michel: The Patriots' second drive ended like their first, with a Sony Michel touchdown.

Michael scampered 14 yards and sneaked over the pylon at the corner of the end zone, capping a seven-play, 67-yard drive. Michel has had nine carries for 43 TDs. So far, the Patriots have run up 142 yards offense on 10 plays and the first quarter isn’t over. (14-7, New England, 1:34 first quarter)

New England scores first, but L.A. responds: The Patriots draw first blood, with a drive that gobbled nearly half of the first quarter and ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by Sony Michel with 7:49 left.

New England was helped when a third-down pass at the nine, intended for Rob Gronkowki in the end zone, fell incomplete and Casey Hayward was called for pass interference. On first and goal from the 1, Michel scored, completing the 14-play, 83-yard drive on which Tom Brady completed 7 of 8 passes for 60 yards.

Bill Belichick had a little surprise for the Chargers, electing to break habit and receive the opening kickoff rather than deferring. Perhaps that’s related to Los Angeles' new addition, Nick Rose, handling kickoffs to keep the ball away from Cordarrelle Patterson. (7-0, New England, 6:52 first quarter)

Philip Rivers wasted no time with a reply, hitting Keenan Allen on a 43-yard TD pass. That capped a six-play, 72-yard drive that took 2:53. It’s so on now. (7-7, 4:56 first quarter)

What’s Nick Saban got to do with it: Because we like intangibles, we’ll point out that Alabama’s coach and the Patriots' Bill Belichick have alternated winning titles every year since 2014. Saban won last year; the Patriots did not. Saban did not this win this year. We’ll see what happens next.

What’s next: The Patriots play the Chiefs in Kansas City in the AFC conference championship game at 6:40 p.m. Eastern on Sunday, Jan. 20 (CBS).

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