FOXBOROUGH — The Chargers had a quick response when the Patriots raced to a 7-0 lead on their first drive Sunday afternoon.
Then the traveling band of Los Angelenos ran out of answers.
Oh sure, Philip Rivers and Co. threw up 21 second-half points to make the final score a respectable 41-28, but make no mistake, this game was over long before intermission.
The Patriots advanced to their eighth straight AFC Championship game by racing to a 35-7 halftime lead in a thoroughly dominating performance in all three phases of the game.
It was New England’s most complete game of the season, and it set up a date with the top-seeded Chiefs in Kansas City next Sunday evening.
It’ll be a rematch of the wildly entertaining Week 6 matchup the Patriots won, 43-40, on Stephen Gostkowski’s 28-yard walkoff field goal.
The Patriots won the coin toss Sunday, and Bill Belichick stunned the packed Gillette Stadium house of 65,878 by taking the ball. The fans weren’t the only ones caught off guard.
“I was surprised,’’ Julian Edelman said. “But he’s the wise old owl, so . . . ’’
Tom Brady took the ball and the reins by leading his club on a 14-play, 83-yard drive capped by Sony Michel’s 1-yard run. The march was a thing of beauty, featuring eight passes and six runs, with running backs touching the ball on 12 of the 14 plays.
Rivers brought the Chargers right back, capping a six-play, 67-yard drive with 43-yard rip to a wide-open Keenan Allen. Stephon Gilmore bit on Allen’s inside move (“I got a little too nosy,’’ the cornerback said), and there was no help over the top.
It might have been the lone mistake New England’s defense made during the first 30 minutes, as it forced punts on Los Angeles’s next four possessions.
“A great job by our team today,’’ Belichick said. “I couldn’t be prouder of the effort from the coaching staff, players. We had a good week, obviously [we were] ready to go.’’
Now they’ll go to Kansas City to try to punch their ticket to a third straight Super Bowl.
Red zone excellence
The Patriots were brilliant in the red zone, scoring five touchdowns on seven trips. It’s the kind of results needed to continue moving on in this tournament.
“The red zone production was good,’’ Bill Belichick said.
The Chargers were a perfect 3 for 3 when they moved into the red zone, but the Patriots didn’t allow them to get a sniff of that valued area until late in the third quarter when they were up, 38-7.
Michel at his best
Sony Michel turned in the best game of his rookie campaign, running for 129 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries. He ran with speed (see his 14-yard burst around the right edge and dive for the pylon) and power (see his 5-yard score where he kept chugging right through the Charger front seven.
“He’s definitely a gifted runner — he has good vision for a young back and he runs hard, he’s not afraid to get behind those pads,’’ left tackle Trent Brown said.
Michel joined Curtis Martin and LeGarrette Blount as the only Patriot backs to score three touchdowns in a postseason game.
Big holes by big guys
Lots of credit for the rushing effort (34 carries, 155 yards) goes to the offensive line, including honorary members Rob Gronkowski and James Develin. The big guys sprang big holes to get the backs to the second level. Once there, they had room to roam because there were no linebackers to corral them as the Chargers stuck with the nickel, dime, and big dime packages.
“When you get a lot of defensive backs out there, you’ve got to run the ball,’’ Gronkowski said. “You’ve got to put your head down and make yards the old way, the old-fashioned way, and that’s by running the ball.’’
Gilmore had it covered
Aside from his hiccup on Keenan Allen’s touchdown, Stephon Gilmore played another strong game. Allen finished with two catches for 75 yards.
“I got my hands on him,’’ Gilmore said. “You know, he’s quick at the top of the route, so I just tried to stop him from getting downfield.’’
Gilmore capped his effort by picking off Philip Rivers on a deep ball intended for Allen.
“I had to make up for [the touchdown],’’ he said. “I was mad at myself.’’
It’s not easy to fool Philip Rivers, but the Patriots disguised their coverages masterfully. Brian Flores’s group would show blitz, then back out, or come with late pressure. Rivers was constantly moved off his spot and forced to throw on the run. He completed less than 50 percent of his passes (25 of 51).
Rivers insisted, however, that it was more about his team’s lack of execution than it was about anything New England showed.
“They played better,” said Rivers. “I don’t know that they did a ton of stuff defensively that surprised us . . . When [the season] comes to an end, we can analyze it all we want. They scored more points than we did, and they were the better team today.’’
Dorsett on target
Phillip Dorsett caught four passes on five targets and has caught 17 of the last 18 balls thrown to him as he continues to expand his role in this offense.
Dorsett scored on a 15-yard pass from Brady in the second quarter when he lined up to Tom Brady’s left in a stack formation with Julian Edelman. It seemed to confuse the Chargers, and Dorsett got a free break to the end zone when Brady dropped a soft rainbow in his arms.
Tough to be King
Tough game for Los Angeles’s Desmond King.
The versatile defensive back not only got burned on Phillip Dorsett’s touchdown, he also muffed a punt after his club had made a rare first-half stop, and Albert McClellan recovered. The Patriots capitalized on the turnover with a Michel TD for 35-7 lead.
Albert McClellan continues to prove he was a most valuable late-season addition, as the veteran linebacker continues to come up huge on special teams.
His fumble recovery was the latest example. He’s also blocked three kicks this season. The recovery was originally ruled out of bounds, but Bill Belichick challenged it and won.
“I was pretty confident [I was still inbounds], if you see the replay, I was telling the referee to look up,’’ McClellan said. “But it was one of those things where I wouldn’t tell the coach to throw the challenge flag, but he did and it worked out.’’
Special in all phases
In other special teams news, Nate Ebner had a pair of onside kick recoveries; Ramon Humber, another late-season special teams addition, also had a strong game, making a pair of tackles; and rookie Keion Crossen continues to show outstanding speed on kickoff coverage. He had one tackle and came within whiskers of a few more.
Quote of the day
“Look, we’re happy to win, especially in the playoffs against a team who hasn’t really lost on the road all year long. We’ll enjoy tonight, go hug our wives, girlfriends, and kids, and then we’ll be back in the lab again tomorrow.’’
Matthew Slater, on turning the page toward Kansas City.
Both teams came out unscathed. Patriots safety Patrick Chung and right guard Shaq Mason both left the field briefly (Mason checked into the medical tent), but both returned to action quickly.
Next week: at KC
It’ll be another test against another dynamic offense led by young gun quarterback/contortionist Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs’ defense was pretty suspect all season long, but this is a different unit at Arrowhead Stadium, and the defense played its best game against the Colts on Saturday.