This AFC divisional round playoff matchup was billed as a talented and road-tested Chargers team coming into Gillette Stadium and challenging an up-and-down and sometimes inconsistent Patriots team.
That did not happen.
New England dismantled Los Angeles, 41-28, to advance to its eighth straight AFC Championship game and its 13th with Tom Brady at quarterback. The Patriots will face the Chiefs in Kansas City next Sunday (6:40 p.m., CBS) with a shot to make their fourth straight Super Bowl.
“Honestly, I don’t really care about that right now,” coach Bill Belichick said about taking eight straight teams to the AFC title game. “I’m worried about this team.”
Brady, who is now 28-10 in the postseason, and the offense got the scoring started on the first drive, electing to receive the opening kickoff and marching 83 yards in 14 plays, with rookie Sony Michel, who rushed for 129 yards on the day, scoring the first of his three touchdowns.
“He had a great game. He’s just had a great year,” Brady said of Michel. “He’s battled and fought hard. I really love Sony as a person, his commitment to the team and he’s been a lot of fun to be out there with. He’s making a lot of hard yards.”
Philip Rivers and the Chargers answered on their first possession, but that was the only time the Chargers could match the Patriots, in any phase.
New England scored touchdowns on its first four possessions, and its only first-half punt resulted in a fumble by Desmond King and a recovery by Albert McClellan to set up Michel’s third touchdown. The Patriots would go on to score on seven of their first nine possessions, roll up 30 first downs and 499 total yards, convert on seven of 14 third downs, and hold the ball for 38 minutes and 20 seconds.
“Both phases were important,” Brady said of the balanced offense. “You can’t get one-dimensional in these type of games, it’s too tough against too many good teams. You get to this point, there’s very little margin of error and you’re going to have to be good in all phases.”
The defense was dominant, frustrating Rivers and blanketing his receivers all game. The unit held LA to 128 first-half yards and 316 overall, 22 first downs, and 5 for 13 on third down.
With his second quarter touchdown pass to Phillip Dorsett in the second quarter, Brady extended his streak of touchdown passes to 13 straight postseason games, tied for the third-longest streak. The quarterback finished 34-of-43 passing for 343 yards and a touchdown, the 15th time he has crossed the 300-yard passing mark in the playoffs.
Julian Edelman finished with nine catches for 151 yards, the highest yardage output of his postseason career. His first catch of the second quarter moved him into second all-time in postseason catches (he now has 98 total), behind Jerry Rice (151).
“He’s such great player and just great teammate, competitor and had a great game today,” Brady said of Edelman. “He came up big, we needed it.”
James White finished with 15 catches for 97 yards, breaking his own franchise record for receptions in a postseason game.
“Couldn’t be prouder of the effort from the coaches and players,” Belichick said.
“Played a good game today against a good football team. I thought our team played well and made plays in every area and played with a lot of energy and a lot of effort.”
Below are updates from the game as it unfolded.
Patriots 41, Chargers 28 (0:00): Nate Ebner recovered another onside kick, then Tom Brady knelt twice to run out the clock.
Patriots 41, Chargers 28: (0:59): Philip Rivers hit Antonio Gates for an 8-yard touchdown. The two-point conversion failed.
Patriots 41, Chargers 22 (2:59): Tom Brady remained in the game and handed off three times. New England went three-and-out. Patriots guard Joe Thuney was whistled for holding on the first play, and the Chargers stopped Rex Burkhead well short of the first down marker on thirrd and 15.
Patriots 41, Chargers 22 (4:12): Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore picked off Philip Rivers, tearing the ball away from intended target Keenan Allen. The Chargers had picked up one first down, a 12-yard completion to Antonio Gates, before Gilmore’s interception on third and 10.
New England took over at the Los Angeles 33-yard line.
Patriots 41, Chargers 22 (5:04): After Nate Ebner fielded an onside kick attempt by the Chargers, New England went three-and-out via a 1-yard rush by Sony Michel and two short completions to Chris Hogan and James White. Matthew Slater downed Ryan Allen’s punt at the Los Angeles 2-yard line.
White has 15 catches for the day, a new career high in the postseason, surpassing his own franchise record for catches in a playoff game.
Patriots 41, Chargers 22 (7:38): Chargers tight end Virgil Green caught a 1-yard touchdown, and Los Angeles converted the 2-point conversion with a pass over the middle to Keenan Allen.
On the first play of the drive, Philip Rivers found Tyrell Williams for a 29-yard gain. The quarterback targeted Williams again two plays later, and though the pass fell incomplete, Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson was flagged for pass interference. Then, on third and 4 from the New England 33-yard line, Rivers tossed a pass to Allen near the goal line. The play was initially ruled incomplete, but after review the officials marked him down at the 1-yard line.
Patriots 41, Chargers 14 (9:39): The Patriots matched the Chargers with a three-and-out of their own. Tom Brady handed the ball off to Sony Michel all three plays, and the running back was stopped for no gain on third and 1. Punter Ryan Allen booted the ball into the end zone for a touchback.
Patriots 41, Chargers 14 (11:47): The Chargers went three-and-out for the fourth time.
Los Angeles was backed up 10 yards by an offensive holding penalty on the first play, then Philip Rivers threw three straight incompletions. Kyle Van Noy nearly had an interception on the second of those throws, but the potential pick slipped through his hands.
Punter Donnie Jones sent the Patriots back to their own 48-yard line.
Patriots 41, Chargers 14 (12:23): Stephen Gostkowski capped an eight play, 63-yard drive with a 30-yard field goal.
Julian Edelman, who continued to climb in the record books, reeled in a Tom Brady pass deep downfield for a 35-yard gain early in the drive.
Also, Edelman has five career 100-yard receiving games in the playoffs, tied for third-most all time (Rice, 8, and Irvin, 6, are the only ones ahead of him).— Alex Speier (@alexspeier) January 13, 2019
Most career playoff games with 7+ receptions:— Alex Speier (@alexspeier) January 13, 2019
1- Edelman (9)
2- Welker (8)
3 - Rice (6)
James White, meanwhile, is 1 of 8 players ever with 10+ receptions in multiple playoff games.
The wide receiver was whistled for holding on the next play, but James White wiped out the 10-yard penalty by bursting through the Chargers defense for 23 yards on 1st and 20.
New England stalled at the Los Angeles 16-yard line after two incompletions and a 4-yard completion to Chris Hogan.
Patriots 38, Chargers 14 (1:16): Patriots linebacker Elandon Roberts stuffed Melvin Gordon with a huge hit on 1st and goal from the New England 1-yard line, but could not prevent the running back from punching into the end zone on the next play.
The touchdown capped a 10 play, 72-yard drive that ran 5:22 minutes off the clock. Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers was whistled for roughing the passer early in the drive, which also included another challenge win for Bill Belichick. He threw the red flag when officials ruled Mike Williams was down by contact when he had fumbled.
The review determined there was no clear recovery after the fumble, so the Chargers kept possession and the Patriots lost a timeout.
A defensive holding penalty on Stephon Gilmore kept the drive alive on third and 13, and a 17-yard completion by Philip Rivers to Tyrell Williams in the red zone set up Gordon’s score.
Gordon plunges in from a yard, and it's now Patriots 38, Chargers 14 with 1:16 left 3Q. Chargers go 72 yards in 10 plays, take 5:15 off the clock— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) January 13, 2019
Patriots 38, Chargers 7 (6:31): Stephen Gostkowski, called into action for his first field goal attempt of the game, sent the football through the uprights on a 28-yard attempt. The Patriots’ drive took 7:22 off the clock and went 57 yards in 14 plays.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski reeled in his first catch of the game on the drive, a 25-yarder, and left two bruised Chargers in his wake before safety Adrian Phillips finally managed to drag him down.
New England faced fourth and 2 from the Los Angeles 17-yard line, and went for it, Sony Michel gaining 7 yards on the play.
This was the Patriots' toughest opponent in the Divisional Round in four years, and this is their biggest blowout win. Go figure— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) January 13, 2019
Patriots 35, Chargers 7 (14:44): Philip Rivers and Co. went three-and-out on the first drive of the second half with Rivers throwing back-to-back incompletions, then a 3-yard completion to Tyrell Williams, who was stopped well short of the first down marker.
First downs: NE 24, LAC 6
Total yards: NE 347, LAC 128
Pass yards: NE 233, LAC 111
Rush yards: NE 114, LAC 17
Time of possession: NE 20:11, LAC 9:49
Tom Brady: 23-29, 233 yards, TD, 111.6 rating
Sony Michel: 16 carries, 105 yards, 3 TDs
Julian Edelman: 7 catches, 107 yards
James White: 10 catches, 71 yards
Phillip Dorsett: 4 catches 41 yards, TD
Rex Burkhead: 2 carries, 9 yards, TD
Patriots 35, Chargers 7 (0:00): New England picked up one first down before the end of the half as Tom Brady found Julian Edelman for a 12-yard gain. However, the clock ran out after Phillip Dorsett was tackled at the Los Angeles 30-yard line.
Patriots lead at halftime, 35-7. Can't get a last-second FG. Interesting that Dorsett didn't get the clock stoppage when going out of bounds. Think it has something to do with the fact that he was going backwards— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) January 13, 2019
Tom Brady is not happy that the Patriots didn't get that clock stoppage with Dorsett going out of bounds— Nora Princiotti (@NoraPrinciotti) January 13, 2019
Patriots 35, Chargers 7 (0:51): Philip Rivers and the Chargers went three-and-out.
Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers sacked Rivers for a 10-yard loss on the first play of the drive. The quarterback closed part of the gap with a 10-yard completion Antonio Gates, but threw an incompletion on 3rd and 10 as the drive stalled.
Patriots 35, Chargers 7 (1:43): Sony Michel powered past a collection of Chargers defenders for a 5-yard touchdown as the Patriots made the most of the short field position.
35 first-half points are tied for the 5th most ever in an NFL postseason game, and match the Patriots record (previously set vs Broncos in Jan 2012).— Alex Speier (@alexspeier) January 13, 2019
Sony Michel is the only player in the last 25 postseasons with 100 Rush yards and 3 Rush TD in the 1st half.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 13, 2019
He's just the 3rd rookie in postseason history with 3 Rush TD in a single game (Leonard Fournette in 2017 and William Floyd in 1994), per @EliasSports.
On the first play after the turnover, Tom Brady fired a pass to Julian Edelman for 19 yards. Then the 41-year-old quarterback threw a tight spiral to Philip Dorsett, who picked up nine yards on 2nd and 8 to set up Michel’s score.
Patriots 28, Chargers 7 (3:22): Chargers corner and returner Desmond King fumbled Ryan Allen’s first punt of the game and Albert McLellan recovered the ball for New England just inside the sideline. The officials initally ruled the ball out of bounds, but reversed the call after Bill Belichick challenged the play. The Patriots offense took over at the Los Angeles 35-yard line.
Patriots ball. Between the Nick Rose experiment and this turnover, Chargers special teams not so special so far.— Nora Princiotti (@NoraPrinciotti) January 13, 2019
Also, Albert McClellan pickup turned out to be big.
Patriots 28, Chargers 7 (4:16): On third and 10 at his own 47-yard line, Philip Rivers — under pressure once again — threw an incomplete pass intended for Melvin Gordon.
Julian Edelman returned Donnie Jones’s punt to the New England 21-yard line.
Patriots 28, Chargers 7 (6:04): Running back Rex Burkhead took advantage of a Rob Gronkowski block as he punched through the Chargers defense for six yards and a touchdown.
Rex Burkhead six yards to the left, touchdown. Four possessions, four touchdowns. Patriots are breaking the Chargers' will— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) January 13, 2019
The Patriots offense needed just six plays to travel 83 yards on the drive — in large part because Sony Michel took a handoff at the Los Angeles 49-yard line, bounced away from a would-be tackler, and sprinted for a 40-yard gain.
40 yard run by Michel is his longest of the season. Tremendous blocking by Mason, Andrews and pretty much everyone— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) January 13, 2019
Sony Michel's 40-yard run in the second quarter came against the Chargers 6-DB personnel grouping.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 13, 2019
The Patriots heavy personnel packages (less than 3 WRs on-field) have proven to be a challenging matchup for the Chargers DB-heavy defense.#LACvsNE | #GoPats pic.twitter.com/ZerdQ7psZw
On the first play of the drive, Tom Brady threw a short pass to James White, who picked up 25 yards before he was pushed out of bounds.
Patriots 21, Chargers 7 (9:12): Devin McCourty leaped to break up a lofted Philip Rivers pass intended for tight end Antonio Gates on third and 10 to force LA to punt.
The LA offense moved the chains twice on the drive, with an 11-yard completion to Melvin Gordon and a 10-yard connection to Mike Williams over the middle on third and 7. Punter Donnie Jones pinned the Patriots at their own 13-yard line.
Patriots 21, Chargers 7 (12:17): Tom Brady hit a wide-open Phillip Dorsett for a 15-yard touchdown to extend New England’s lead. It punctuated an eight-play, 58-yard drive. The score came one play after Chris Hogan was flagged for a false start on third and 1 from the 10.
Brady has now thrown a touchdown in 13 straight postseason games, which is tied for third longest streak of all time.
With his first catch of the second quarter, Julian Edelman is now second all-time in postseason catches (94), behind Jerry Rice (151).
Patriots 14, Chargers 7 (0:24): Philip Rivers and Co. went three-and-out. Running back Melvin Gordon rushed for 1 yard on the first play, before two incompletions brought out the punt unit. Donnie Jones sent the Patriots back to their own 42-yard line.
Patriots 14, Chargers 7 (1:35): Sony Michel broke through the Chargers’ defensive line, dove for the pylon, and added New England’s second touchdown of the afternoon.
Great blocking up front, great vision by Michel to get to the corner and reach the pylon. 14 yard touchdown run— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) January 13, 2019
Great blocking up front, great vision by Michel to get to the corner and reach the pylon. 14 yard touchdown run— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) January 13, 2019
Julian Edelman sparked the seven play, 67-yard drive, picking up 14 yards on a second and 13 before darting into space in the middle of the LA secondary for a 28-yard gain that set up Michel’s score.
Patriots 7, Chargers 7 (4:56): Philip Rivers and LA answered New England’s score by floating a deep ball to Keenan Allen, who was wide open and strolled in for a 43-yard touchdown. It was a six-play, 67-yard drive for LA. Rivers was 3-of-4 passing for 64 yards on the possession, including an 18-yarder to Mike Williams, who also had a drop on the drive.
Chargers take two deep shots on opening drive. Mike Williams drops the first one, Keenan Allen hauls in the second one for a 43 yard TD. Patriots better clean that up— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) January 13, 2019
Longest touchdown pass allowed by the Patriots in a playoff game since Chad Pennington-Jerricho Cotchery connection for 77 yards in the wild card game in Jan. 2007.— Alex Speier (@alexspeier) January 13, 2019
Gilmore either bit hard on Allen's inside move or he thought he had help. PAT good, tie game.— Nora Princiotti (@NoraPrinciotti) January 13, 2019
Keenan Allen wiiiide open for a 43 yard TD. Miscommunication with Gilmore and the safety— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) January 13, 2019
Stephon Gilmore is following Keenan Allen so far. J.C. Jackson has been with Tyrell Williams, Jason McCourty with Mike Williams, who is down after converting on 3rd-and-15.— Nora Princiotti (@NoraPrinciotti) January 13, 2019
Chargers led the NFL with 6 delay of game penalties this year. Already have 1 today— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) January 13, 2019
Patriots 7, Chargers 0 (7:49): Sony Michel puched it in from a yard out to cap a 14-play, 83-yard drive that ate 7:11 of clock.
One play before the score, Tom Brady looked for Rob Gronkowski in the end zone on third and 6 at 9-yard line and althought the pass fell incomplete, Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward was whistled for pass interference to set up Michel’s score.
It was a big drive for James White, who had five catches for 45 yards on the possession, including a long of 17 yards. Michel had six carries for 15 yards and a catch for 9 yards. Julian Edelman had a catch for 6 yards.
Since 2001, the Patriots are 18-4 in playoff games when scoring first, including 7-0 in the previous five playoff years.— Alex Speier (@alexspeier) January 13, 2019
Patriots are 9-1 this year when scoring first. The one loss was at Miami— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) January 13, 2019
Chargers opening with 6 DBs on defense. The one linebacker is Kyle Emanuel— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) January 13, 2019
Huge "Beat L.A." chant going in Gillette Stadium. Apparently the only people on the planet who can remember they're not the San Diego Chargers anymore are all at this game.— Nora Princiotti (@NoraPrinciotti) January 13, 2019
The Patriots won the toss and elected to receive.
Patriots win the coin toss, and elect to receive. The second time this year they went with "receive" over "defer." Patriots know they need a fast start— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) January 13, 2019
Tom Brady jogs out of the tunnel, and all the way down the length of the sideline. For the last several weeks, he has been stopping at midfield. What injured knee??— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) January 13, 2019
Breaking: It is cold at Gillette Stadium.— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) January 13, 2019
A sincere appreciation for all those who have to do real work today: Stadium employees, parking lot attendance, police, fire and other first responders, and the hundreds of other people behind the scenes pic.twitter.com/Cn5LEIQfwk
For New England, DL Keionta Davis, TE Stephen Anderson, OL James Ferentz, DL Ufomba Kamalu, DB Obi Melifonwu, DB Duke Dawson, and DL Deatrich Wise. With Wise out, both Adrian Clayborn and Derek Rivers are active.
Tom Brady has just about his full arsenal today vs. Chargers:— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) January 13, 2019
RB: Michel, White, Burkhead
WR: Edelman, Hogan, Dorsett
TE: Gronk, Allen
For LA, TE Sean Culkin, RB Detrez Newsome, C Cole Toner, G Forrest Lamp, WR Dylan Cantrell, DE Anthony Lanier, and DT T.Y. McGill. Tight end Hunter Henry is active for the Chargers.
Pregame news and notes
■ Although it has been talked about all season, the NFL Network on Sunday reported that tight end Rob Gronkowski will strongly weigh retirement when this season is done.
Jim McBride’s keys to victory for each team
1. Electric avenue: The defense must get Tom Brady off his spot. If he’s given the time or is allowed to step up and deliver strikes, he will rock on through this defense.
2. Electric atmosphere: Don’t fall behind. The Chargers have been tremendous on the road, but Gillette Stadium is no ordinary venue. Follow the game plan from Baltimore and don’t freak out.
3. Electric blanket: Contain James White. The Chargers have had trouble containing receivers out of the backfield, and they’ll face a huge challenge with Sweet Feet. Get him on the ground quickly or he’ll be dancing all afternoon.
1. Red-hot take: This team can’t settle for field goals when it reaches the red zone. It’s been an area of trouble at times this season, but touchdowns win playoff games, so empty the playbook and get the 7.
2. Red-hot take II: Bend but don’t break when the Chargers get to the red zone. Los Angeles scored just one touchdown in three trips last week. Another performance like that and the Chargers will fizzle.
3. Red army: New England’s versatile safety trio of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon has to support the troops near the line of scrimmage while also helping out over the top.
■ Our football writers answered eight questions on this matchup.
■ Chad Finn’s Unconventional Preview: This contest will make some history we won’t soon forget, and three players to watch not named Tom Brady.
■ How much really separates the Patriots and Chargers? Alex Speier dove into the numbers, examining the Chargers’ record in cold weather, their record in 1 p.m. East Coast games, the role turnovers have played in their season, their blitzing tendencies, and their ground game.
■ Christopher L. Gasper: Do you believe? Do you believe the Patriots will summon their best football for the playoffs simply by virtue of being the Patriots? That it’s an ingrained, automatic response to a special occasion, no different than blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. Right now, belief outstrips proof for these Patriots.
■ Don’t expect to see much of that seven defensive back grouping from the Chargers in the AFC divisional-round game Sunday. The Patriots have the personnel to force the Chargers into putting their linebackers, who represent the weakness in their defense, on the field. What remains to be seen is if the New England running backs can take advantage of it.
■ Melvin Gordon thinks James White should get more carries. Stephon Gilmore still sees the quickness of a guy recruited as a safety in Melvin Ingram. We asked former college teammates from the Patriots and Chargers to scout each other.
■ Tara Sullivan talked to Stephen Gostkowski and Lawrence Tynes about the pressure on NFL kickers in the playoffs and going from revered to reviled — or vice versa — with one swing of the leg.
■ Brian Flores’s story, from Brooklyn to BC to the Patriots, was impeccably told last February by Sullivan. And it’s a great one to revisit now in what could be one of his final weeks in Foxborough, as the Dolphins have reportedly narrowed the focus of their head coaching search to Flores.
■ Sarah Thomas will become the first woman to work an NFL playoff game Sunday, when she serves as a down judge in Patriots-Chargers. Here is what a few Patriots players said about it.
■ Will tight end Hunter Henry play? “We’ll see,” he said with a smile.
■ Philip Rivers wears the same hat every day of the week. He wears it to practice, he wears it around the house, he wears it to each postgame news conference.
“I have it on right now,” Rivers said Wednesday.
The hat adorns a Latin phrase: “Nunc Coepi.”
“It just means, ‘Now I begin,’ I think in its most literal terms,” Rivers said. “It’s a different way of saying, one play at a time. You begin new no matter what. I use it in my personal life as well, family life, prayer life, whatever it is. You begin again. Good or bad day, or good play or bad play, or whatever it is. You have a chance to get back up and begin again. It’s something that’s really stuck with me.”
Rivers and the Chargers found new life this season, and Ben Volin wrote about it.