Yes, the stars were great, but the unsung heroes played on the offensive line
FOXBOROUGH — Before the ball had even kicked off on Sunday afternoon, Bill Belichick threw his players for a loop.
In the first 16 games the Patriots played this season, the team that won the coin toss chose to defer 15 times. The Patriots chose “receive” in Week 2 against Jacksonville, but didn’t use that tactic again until winning the coin toss to start Sunday’s 41-28 win over the Chargers in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
“We’re so trained in our routine. I was thinking, ‘Oh, we won, defer to the second half,’ ” tight end Dwayne Allen said. “Then I hear we’re receiving, and it’s like, whoa. Let’s go.”
The move drew two reactions from the players — surprise, and excitement.
“The way I take it is he’s putting his confidence in us,” Allen said. “It put a little pep in my step.”
The message from Belichick was clear — the Patriots wanted to impose their will on the Chargers from the jump, and keep it going for all 60 minutes.
With 41 points, 498 total yards, and 38:20 of possession, it was definitely mission accomplished.
“Yeah, it definitely fired us up,” running back Rex Burkhead said. “It’s always nice when you start fast.”
The Patriots took it right to the Chargers. They went 83 yards for a touchdown on their first drive. They went 67 yards for a touchdown on their second drive. Then 67 yards again for a touchdown on their third drive. And 58 yards for a touchdown on their fourth drive.
The Patriots had a 35-7 lead before the Chargers could catch their breath.
“It was kind of Coach’s way of saying, ‘Here you go, go do something,’ ” center David Andrews said. “He put that confidence in us, and it was awesome. We were able to come out and start fast.”
The players certainly rewarded Belichick for his confidence in them. Tom Brady was nearly flawless, throwing for 343 yards and a touchdown. But this game was won in the trenches.
The Patriots ran 32 designed running plays, and ran the ball right at the Chargers’ undersized defense, gaining 155 yards and rushing for four touchdowns. Sony Michel did most of the damage, rushing 24 times for 129 yards and three touchdowns, all in the first half. The Patriots were averaging 5.5 yards per carry through three quarters before hitting a wall in the fourth quarter as they tried to run out the clock.
Brady was grateful he had a running game to take the pressure off him. The Patriots improved to 5-0 this season when Michel rushes for at least 100 yards.
Michel had touchdown runs of 1, 5, and 14 yards, the latter coming with impressive vision and speed to beat his defender to the pylon.
“I really love Sony as a person, and his commitment to the team,” Brady said. “He’s just been a lot of fun to be out there with. He’s making a lot of hard yards, and he had a great game today.”
Michel also broke off a 40-yard run, his longest of the season, but he was caught at the 9-yard line by Derwin James. His teammates lovingly gave him a hard time about that.
“He definitely made the most out of his opportunities today,” Allen said. “Coach got on him earlier in the year for breaking runs and not scoring, so I look forward to hearing what he got to say about the one big run that he didn’t score.”
“There was daylight in front of me. There was really no reason why I shouldn’t have scored,” Michel said.
Michel, Brady, and Julian Edelman (nine catches for 151 yards) were the stars of the day, but the Patriots’ blockers were the unsung heroes.
“The offensive line — I’m going to keep saying it over and over — did a great job, had a great week of preparation,” Michel said. “I just had to be patient and let things develop.”
The Patriots’ line also completely neutralized the Chargers’ pass rush. Brady dropped back to pass 44 times, and he was hit just twice all day, and never sacked.
Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, the Chargers’ standout pass rushers, combined for just three tackles, one quarterback hit, and, of course, no sacks.
“The tackles played unreal. They played lights out,” Andrews said of Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon. “[Bosa and Ingram] are two very good edge guys, they did a great job, and they deserve everything they got.”
But the five guys up front weren’t the only ones blocking their tails off. The Chargers once again employed a defense using six or seven defensive backs, and the Patriots countered by using fullback James Develin, and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Allen to pound the ball right at the Chargers. Gronkowski only had one catch for 25 yards, Develin had two carries for 5 yards, and Allen didn’t register a stat, but the three were integral to the Patriots’ dominant offensive performance.
“When you get a lot of defensive backs out there, you’ve got to put your hand down and make yards the old-fashioned way, and that’s by running the ball,” Gronkowski said. “We did a lot of that. We also had a great job executing in the pass game. It opened up a lot of play-actions, a lot of stuff like that, so just being able to run the ball, have four touchdowns — everyone, the offensive line, we all did a great job.”
Allen couldn’t believe how well Develin played.
“Another guy who was opening up lanes all day was James Develin. Wow, he had some mashing blocks,” Allen said. “I’m not sure if you saw the first goal line, the way he ran into there like a train, finished off Rob’s guy, finished his guy. Wow.”
Sunday’s win was the Patriots’ most efficient and complete offensive performance of the season. And they did it by taking it to the Chargers right from the jump, and not letting up for four quarters.
“It’s certainly fun to be out there and see the great running backs that we have and the offensive line mash guys and we keep the chains moving,” Allen said. “The type of ball that we need is putting up points and winning games. Whatever it takes — that’s been our approach all year, and that’s the approach we’re going to continue to take.”