FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It was 20 degrees in Gillette Stadium, according to the newly installed thermometer that the light and breezy Los Angeles Chargers had to run past in the tunnel, onto a field clouded by the white frost exhaled from about 66,000 shouting mouths. Even colder, though, were the freezing hearts of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and the rest of these AFC championship game-bound New England Patriots, those ice-trapped fossils.
This past week, when he was asked whether it ever gets tiresome preparing for high-stakes postseason games, Belichick just replied in that dead-leaves-tumbling-down-a-street voice: “Sorry to put you through it. Normal week for us.” Just another normal week of game-planning for an opponent’s weakness like a winter predator picking meat off a bone. Just another normal week of cold, mechanistic excellence that resulted in a deconstruction of the flimsy Chargers by halftime, leaving only the question of how bad the final math would be (41-28). Just another normal week in the life of this supposedly dying colossus, with its permafrost coach and 41-year-old quarterback, who are now in their eighth straight AFC championship game and 13th in 19 seasons together.
Wasn’t there something almost taunting in the Patriots’ performance? It had a told-you-so quality, coming as it did in the face of all the expert conclusions that this wasn’t the same old impregnable franchise, that its 11-5 record was uncharacteristically troubled, that “we suck and can’t win any games,” as Brady said. Brady’s numbers were down, Rob Gronkowski was mulling retirement with just three touchdowns all season, the defense was uneven, and the Patriots had lacked a certain killer instinct in that bizarre, brain-dead loss at Miami in Week 14 that denied them the AFC’s top seed. Maybe they had been passed by; maybe they didn’t have enough juice anymore. “Everybody thinks we don’t have enough,” wide receiver Phillip Dorsett said.
Did all the premature predictions of his demise make it sweeter? Brady pursed his lips and took a moment to respond. “I just like winning,” he said, meaningfully. “Just like winning.”
There was something dismissive — wasn’t there? — about the way the Patriots handled the Chargers’ vaunted seven-defensive-back zone defense. Yes, yes, there was. The Chargers were road-tested, with an 8-1 record away from home, and had the elegant Philip Rivers, the best quarterback of his generation who hasn’t won the Super Bowl. But the Patriots blew them apart as if they were made of Popsicle sticks and paste. “We got our butts kicked,” Chargers Coach Anthony Lynn admitted. Brady jabbed holes in the zone with screens to James White (15 catches), going 34 for 44 for 343 yards on the day. Sony Michel kicked and thrashed to 129 rushing yards, most of them in the first half, and three touchdowns.
“Played the way we wanted to play,” center David Andrews said.
There wasn’t anything fancy to it. It was just a classic game plan and impeccable execution against that zone defense. “You got to put your hand down and make yards the old-fashioned way,” Gronkowski said. “We went out there, and we were just driving the ball from the very beginning. It was no gimmes. . . . We just kept executing and grinding and pounding the ball.”
The Chargers were in trouble as soon as the Patriots opened the game with that gut punch of a drive, moving systematically down the field in well-controlled increments, 14 plays of solid execution that ate up more than seven minutes before Michel bull-charged into the end zone from the 1 to complete the 83-yard effort.
When the Chargers took just six plays to respond, with Rivers throwing a 43-yard half-moon scoring pass to Keenan Allen, it promised to be the close game everyone expected. For a minute.
Then the Patriots scored 31 straight points.
There went Michel, busting around a corner on a 14-yard scoring run. Here came Brady, looking off the entire Chargers defense by staring at the middle as if he were going to throw short, only to lift his eyes and fling a beautiful ribbon to Dorsett in the corner of the end zone for a 15-yard score.
It went on and on: The Patriots racked up 24 first downs in the half to just six for the Chargers. They were 5 for 5 in the red zone. They punted just once in the entire half. Their stat sheet for just two quarters looked like a game summary. It was as complete and thorough of a playoff victory as they have delivered in their long, triumphant history of five Super Bowl wins. And it firmly shut up all the talk that they’re done.
“If it was going by what people said, there would be no reason to play the game,” defensive end Trey Flowers said. “We let the pads talk. We let the scoreboard talk. That’s our motto.”
The Patriots have not lost a playoff game at Gillette Stadium since 2013, and they were undefeated at home this season. Next week will be a different proposition, of course: They will have to go to Kansas City and face the Chiefs and their electric kid, 23-year-old Patrick Mahomes, in a rematch of perhaps the best game of the regular season, won by the Patriots, 43-40. There will be more talk of young and old, of who is close to being done and who is just getting started.
The mere prospect of it brought out a classic Patriots response. It has long been the Patriots’ way to focus shortsightedly, to live purely in the moment. “Was that in October? November? I don’t remember,” Brady said of the teams’ previous meeting. (It was in October, just for the record.) They haven’t won as much as they have by dwelling on their results and studying yesterday’s scores, by considering themselves time-frozen immortals, even though they are.
“Whatever happened some other year, that’s in the books,” Belichick said. “This team’s got a lot in front of it.”