New England used Sunday’s division matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers to remind the rest of the league that they cannot be counted out as Super Bowl contenders.
Following the dominant 41-28 victory, quarterback Tom Brady commented “everybody thinks we suck and can’t win any games”. Number 12 is probably overstating the extent to which the league and pundits have discussed the supposed decline of the Patriots, though we know how dangerous this team is when they adopt that siege mentality (see: Deflategate; Spygate). Nonetheless, most of the plaudits and media attention this year has been focused on teams much further west than Massachusetts, with the high octane offences of the Rams and Chiefs taking up most of the newspaper column inches.
It seemed that the Patriots made it their mission on Sunday to remind everyone of the perennial Super Bowl contenders that they are. They scored touchdowns on their first four drives meaning New England punter Ryan Allen wasn’t forced to get off the bench until there was 3:32 left in the second quarter. Even then, the punt was muffed by Los Angeles return man Desmond King and recovered by the Pats (after a Belichick challenge to the officials ruling of an out of bounds recovery). New England managed to cash that turnover in with a 4 play drive capped by Sony Michel‘s 3rd rushing touchdown. And it wasn’t even half time.
You could have been forgiven for thinking that we were in for a shootout between two veteran quarterbacks following the first drive by either team. New England opened the game with a heavy dose of short passes to its running backs, especially James White who excels in turning those Brady dump-offs into first downs. The Chargers appeared to have held off the opening drive, but a defensive pass interference penalty on 3rd and 6 allowed Michel, the former Georgia Bulldog, to run in his first postseason touchdown from the 1 yard line.
Los Angeles responded with a touchdown drive of its own with quarterback Philip Rivers connecting with second year receiver Mike Williams on 3rd and 15 to overcome a dropped Tyrell Williams pass on 2nd down and a delay of game penalty on 3rd down. Rivers then hit a wide open Keenan Allen for a 43 yard TD.
That was the last time there was parity in the game. From then on New England’s run game and short passing game proved unstoppable. Brady unfurled a number of short throws, primarily to trusted wideout Julian Edelman who used his toughness to reach the first down marker. The Patriots short passing game is simply overwhelming when it emphasises those short completions allowing receivers like Edelman who excel in gaining yards after the catch. Call it death by a thousand paper cuts. Chunk plays in the run game by Michel were cashed in for his second touchdown.
Belichick is unsurpassed in the modern game at adapting his team and game plan to match the opposition. The defensive mastermind has an astonishing ability to make opposing teams one dimensional. If offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels offence was unrelenting, Belichick and defensive signal caller Brian Flores, took away the Chargers run game under the dangerous Melvin Gordon. On seemingly every defensive play Patriots players crowded the line of scrimmage, stuffing the LA running back or putting Rivers under pressure when he dropped back to pass. In addition to that, Chargers receivers found it difficult to gain separation from Belichick’s defensive backs, whereas their counterparts on the other sideline had seemed to enjoy plentiful space to make plays. This all combined to force Rivers in resorting to long bombs downfield on 3rd and long.
A 40 yard gain by Michel on New England’s third consecutive touchdown drive set up a Rex Burkhead touchdown run and was followed by a 4 play 26 yard drive for Los Angeles, putting punter Donnie Jones back on the field again. By the time Michel scored his 3rd, and the Patriots 4th touchdown, the game was all but over. At half time New England led 35-7 and Michel had over 100 yards rushing. By contrast, Chargers star running back Gordon finished the game with 9 rushes for 15 yards.
The fact that Belichick and Brady could clearly do whatever they wanted on offence was demonstrated when they went for it on 4th and 2 in the third quarter, and converted, despite leading by such a large margin.
The entire 2nd half might as well have been considered garbage time and the Patriots certainly did start to become a little sloppy continuing the Chargers drive with a roughing the passer penalty and a defensive holding penalty by Stephon Gilmore on 3rd and 13. That concluded with a 1 yard touchdown run by Gordon.
The fourth quarter consisted of two receiving touchdowns by Los Angeles’ tight ends: Virgil Green on a play action pass at New England’s goal line, and veteran Antonio Gates who rather poetically scored the last Chargers touchdown of the day. Whether it is Gates‘ last in the NFL remains to be seen. Those came either side of an interception by Patriots cornerback Gilmore who managed to leap in front of Allen with less than 5 minutes of the game left.
By the end of the game, it was mission accomplished for the Patriots. They reminded fans, pundits and opposing teams alike of the threat their fluid and constantly evolving roster poses. If the Chiefs and their young gunslinging quarterback Patrick Mahomes want to make it to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1970, they’re going to have to take down the monolithic team in blue and white led by arguably the greatest head coach and quarterback in NFL history.