FOXBOROUGH — A million years ago the great Muhammad Ali was involved in a fight vs. Ernie Terrell that reminded me of the Patriots vs. the Chargers Sunday.
The 1967 championship bout is remembered for its dominance and downright cruelty as Ali pummeled Terrell, throwing 737 punches and allowing the challenger to stick around for a 15-round beatdown. Ali, born as Cassius Clay, was angry because Terrell refused to recognize Ali’s Muslim name, and the champ spent 15 rounds hollering, “What’s my name,” as he pounded Terrell into a bloody pulp.
This is what we got Sunday at Gillette as Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the ever-mighty Patriots put a stop to months of noise about Brady falling off a cliff and the final days of a crumbling dynasty with a 41-28 playoff beating of the estimable Los Angeles Chargers. (Pay no attention to that final score. It could have been 59-7.)
“I know everyone thinks we suck, and you know, can’t win any games, so we’ll see,” Brady told CBS’s Tracy Wolfson as he came off the field.
This was supposed to be a competitive game. The Chargers had a better record than the Patriots this season. The Chargers went 8-1 on the road. Coming into the NFL’s tournament, they were widely viewed as the most complete team in the AFC. They won a rock fight in Baltimore (best defense in football, the team nobody wanted to play, remember?) last weekend and were established as 4-point underdogs for the divisional bakeoff at Gillette, which means the wiseguys thought of them as a near equal of the Patriots.
They were not. The Patriots slaughtered the West Coast pretenders from the opening coin flip, putting the NFL on notice that New England is very much a contender in this playoff Final Four, which will culminate Feb. 3 in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
“Great job by our team today,’’ Belichick said. “Couldn’t be prouder. Give the players credit. Everybody stepped up today.’’
New England’s divisional-round victory sends the Patriots to Kansas City next weekend in the AFC Championship game. It will be New England’s record eighth consecutive appearance in the conference championship and a victory would thrust the Patriots into the Super Bowl for the ninth time in the 19-year Belichick-Brady era.
Prepare for a lot of noise about the Patriots’ inability to win on the road in the playoffs. And it’s true. They rarely win away from Gillette in January because they rarely play on the road in the playoffs. In the long, decorated history of this Belichick-Brady era, the Patriots have won only three road playoff games (this does not count Super Bowls at neutral sites). Lifetime, Brady is 3-4 as a road quarterback in the postseason. This means he has fewer road playoff wins than journeyman Mark Sanchez. The Patriots have not won a road playoff game in 12 years (at San Diego, 2007). Since that victory, they have lost three straight on the road, all AFC Championships, one in Indianapolis and two in Denver.
There will be plenty of speculation about the Patriots’ chances at KC, given New England’s long drought on the road in the playoffs and the Chiefs’ dominance of the Colts in the division round Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium. Vegas has the Chiefs as an early 3-point favorite.
But I am done doubting these Patriots and similarly done discrediting their success by mocking their competition. The 2018 Chargers were legit. They were not Tomato Cans. There was plenty of well-founded support for their chances in Foxborough, even though they’d traveled coast-to-coast three times in eight days and were unaccustomed to playing football in 27-degree temperatures. They were not supposed to be latter-day versions of the fraidy-cat Texans and Titans.
At the same time, the Patriots were eager to remind you all that they are something more than Fortunate Sons of the AFC East. They were intent on stopping the talk about their slow linebackers and lack of offensive weaponry for Brady. They wanted to deliver a message to the Patriot Haters of America.
We’re not done yet.
And they did.
Years from now when folks look at the final score of this game they might be under the impression that it was mildly competitive.
We know better. We saw it with our own eyes. This was a pantsing worthy of the salad days of 2007 when the Patriots went 18-0 and laughed at their competition.
The Patriots took the ball after winning the coin toss. Very unusual. It was a chance to make a statement. They knew they could do whatever they wanted on offense and they did. With Brady effectively standing in his living room, they carved the Bolts into a million tiny sparks. The Patriots scored touchdowns on their first four possessions to take a 28-7 lead with six minutes left in the first half. It was 35-7 at intermission. The Patriots had 24 first downs in the first half. The Chargers had 23 offensive plays.
The Chargers made no adjustments. They kept playing zone and Brady unpacked Josh McDaniels’s game plan perfectly.
“They’re a good defense, but I think we did a lot of things well,’’ Brady said.
Meanwhile, the Patriots forced fumbles and went for it on fourth down. Belichick threw challenge flags. The Patriots ran into the Chargers punter. It was relentless, right up until 38-7.
In the closing minutes, New England took its foot off the gas and allowed LA some dignity in the form of three Elvin Hayes/Dominique Wilkins garbage-time scores.
No issue. The message had been delivered. You can talk about your Spygate, Deflategate, warm drinks, and trash cans, disharmony at the top, Alex Guerrero, trading Jimmy G, cheapening out on star talent, knocking over Tomato Cans, and strangely placing the voice of Scott Zolak into the headseats of the other team . . . but nothing changes.
The Patriots win because they are very good. And they are very good again this season. They have advanced to the conference championship and they want you to say their name.