FOXBOROUGH — The game was over by halftime, but Tom Brady served notice he is far from being done. Brady remains Brady, and the Los Angeles Chargers are still the Los Angeles Chargers. There’s not really much more you need to know about Sunday’s AFC divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium.
As Jay Z raps in “PSA,” Brady’s personal pregame entrance anthem, “ . . . You are what you are, player.” Yes, indeed. Brady is still an all-time great quarterback and a postseason soul-taker. The Chargers are still self-defeating squanders of talent and opportunities. The result was a runaway 41-28 Patriots victory, postseason win No. 28 of No. 12’s blessed career.
That metaphorical cliff people keep wanting to push him off was nowhere in sight, neither was the Chargers’ defense, as the Patriots found the end zone on their first four possessions and went 5 for 5 in red-zone touchdown conversions, building a 35-7 at the half.
Brady once again had all the answers to the test. Calling the predictable and prosaic Cover 3 scheme Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley trotted out a test for Brady would be gracious. The first law of football in Foxborough — if Brady knows exactly what you’re doing then you’re done.
Brady shredded the Pumped and Jacked Pete Carroll-derived Cover 3 zone scheme, the same way he did against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX and the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. If you’re going to play soft zone coverage and give Brady’s wide receivers and running backs free releases, you have zero shot. Forget playing until 45, Brady could pick apart this scheme at age 55, with his eyes closed.
“I mean, everyone knows we play Cover 3. That’s our base defense, and we beat plenty of teams with it,” said Chargers safety Jahleel Addae, part of a secondary that allowed Brady to complete 34 of 44 passes for 343 yards and a touchdown.
“You just got to give him credit where credit is due. He had a good game. He’s a Hall of Famer, and he came out today, and he played like it.”
With the Chargers playing heavy zone coverage and not jamming the Patriots’ receivers, LA’s defense was more pliable than Brady. He bent the Bolts to his will and broke theirs. Brady finished the first half 23 for 29 for 233 yards for a touchdown. The Patriots finished the Chargers by halftime.
The final score — and a trip to an eighth straight AFC title game — was a formality.
While Brady was a star, he was part of an ensemble cast. The Patriots countered the Chargers’ six- and seven-defensive back packages by running them over. Rookie Sony Michel had 105 of his 129 yards and all three of his touchdowns in the first half on only 16 carries. Michel fronted a Patriots ground game that gashed the Chargers for 6.3 yards per rush in the first half and finished with 155 yards on 34 carries and four touchdowns overall.
It must be January because Brady is back in the AFC Championship game for the 13th time. Discounting his rookie season when he sat in the stands, and 2008 when he tore his ACL in the season opener against next Sunday’s opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs, that’s 13 conference title games in 17 seasons. They should just rename the AFC title game the Brady-Belichick Invitational.
If Brady is consistent in what he does, so are the Chargers.
You can take the Chargers out of San Diego, but you can’t take the San Diego out of the Chargers. It turns out the Patriots did end up with their usual hapless AFC divisional playoff opponent. Just call them the SoCal Cans.
Despite the Chargers’ abundance of talent and their 9-0 record outside of LA County, they got buried under an avalanche of bloodless Patriots excellence and their own schematic and execution errors.
The Chargers were the bumbling Bolts after they matched Brady’s first possession touchdown drive with one of their own. The chief culprit was All-Pro cornerback Desmond King. Mr. King unwisely tried to pass off Phillip Dorsett to Casey Hayward right as the ball was snapped on third and 6, resulting in a busted coverage and an easy Brady 15-yard touchdown pass that put New England up, 21-7.
The Patriots were banking on the Chargers making those royal screw-ups.
“Me and [Julian Edelman] were in a stack. We were talking about that the whole week. We knew that they might mess it up,” said Dorsett. “Once they hesitated, I just took it. I knew the ball was coming because I knew that Tom was going to make the right read.”
On the Patriots’ next drive, the Chargers forced a Brady incompletion on third and 2 from the New England 46, except King was called for holding on Edelman (nine catches for 151 yards), gifting the Patriots a first down. The next play Michel ripped off his longest run of the season, a 40-yarder. Two plays later, Rex Burkhead sauntered in from 6 yards and the Patriots became the first playoff team since the Indianapolis Colts in the 2003 wild-card round to score touchdowns on their first four drives.
Even when Los Angeles forced a punt, it went awry. King muffed Ryan Allen’s punt. It was initially ruled that Albert McClellan did not recover the ball inbounds. Bill Belichick challenged the call, and like everything else on this day, it went the Patriots’ way. They took over at the LA 35 with 3:23 remaining. Michel found the end zone for a third time.
It was Kansas City here we come.
In a year where both Brady’s short-term excellence and long-term viability have been questioned, he offered an emphatic rebuttal. Brady showed no signs of the reported MCL injury that had bothered him after he hurt his left knee against the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 11. He even jogged the length of the field in warm-ups, a run he had been truncating recently. That was the first sign the Chargers were in trouble.
Even with the game well in hand, Brady zip-lined a 35-yard completion to Edelman on the first play of the fourth quarter to secure the 15th 300-yard passing game of his postseason career, extending his NFL record. It whizzed just past the outstretched arm of Chargers Pro Bowl safety Derwin James, as if laser-guided.
Brady had this one in his pocket long before that piece of passing art.
Next Sunday’s AFC Championship game tilt with the Chiefs and their young gunslinger Patrick Mahomes at Arrowhead Stadium promises to be more challenging.
Brady not only had the answers to cut down the Chargers on Sunday. He had them for Patriots doubters, as well.
Talking to CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson postgame, Brady ripped apart a different type of coverage, as his team moves on to face top-seeded KC.
“I know everyone thinks we suck, and you know, can’t win any games,” Brady said. “So, we’ll see. It will be fun.”
Even at age 41 with five Super Bowl rings, Brady still relishes shredding defenses and narratives.