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Patriots destroy Chargers to reach AFC title game

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For those who spent the week penning funeral dirges for the Patriots dynasty: Put down your writing utensils. Football fans on Sunday witnessed New England dial up a franchise-tying 35 points in the first half and do so with authority in a 41-28 devastation of the Los Angeles Chargers. New England moves on to face the top-seeded Chiefs next Sunday in their eighth consecutive AFC Championship Game.

1. In frigid Foxborough, Chargers fans felt a throbbing disturbance in the Force right away, as Tom Brady and his charges authored the longest opening postseason drive of Bill Belichick's tenure in New England. The 14-play masterpiece chewed 7:11 off the clock and saw Brady find the versatile James White for 45 yards off five grabs. Setting the tone with a wily mix of screens, pinpoint lobs and Sony Michel runs -- including the opening score -- TB12 picked apart a defense that showed none of the uber-creative DNA that confounded the Ravens a week ago. In that saucy tilt, the Chargers employed a wire-to-wire mix of seven defensive backs that threw Lamar Jackson into chaos, but Brady exists in a different world. It was surprising to hear next-level color man Tony Romo call New England's Josh McDaniels -- shown on screen as much as any coordinator league-wide -- an "unsung" play-caller. He's as good as they come and showed it on an opening march that resembled so many other artistic gems from Patriots lore.

2. The question was how the Chargers would respond in freezing, hostile conditions. Philip Rivers didn't flinch, uncorking a 43-yard scoring shot to a wide-open Keenan Allen. It was nothing more than a fleeting bright light, though, as anyone watching could feel this tilt turn ugly for Los Angeles by the end of the first frame. The Patriots controlled both lines from the start, while the swarming Chargers defense we saw against Baltimore morphed into a soft cadre of would-be tacklers who appeared mystified on how to disrupt Brady and allowed White to make an NFL postseason-record 15 grabs. The lack of a pass rush allowed the 41-year-old to pull pages from his younger days, hitting 15 of his first 19 passes and burying the Bolts in a 21-7 hole with a well-placed 15-yard rope to Phillip Dorsett in the back corner of the end zone. The Patriots punched in touchdowns on their first three drives for the first time in the franchise's playoff history. Their fourth consecutive score made this club the first to do so in the playoffs since the Colts pulled off that feat against the Jake Plummer-led Broncos in 2003.

3. Belichick, meanwhile, dialed up a key defensive adjustment minutes into the affair, challenging Rivers with a cover-zero approach to free up rushers and force the field general into a handful of desperate deep lobs against an underrated Patriots defense. Dont'a Hightower tangled with Rivers more than once, while Trey Flowers flashed moments of dominance for a gang that piled up two sacks, seven hits and 28 hurries and coaxed the Chargers into three delay of game flags.

4. While the Patriots ran inside and out for 155 yards at 4.6 yards per pop, the Chargers were forced to abandon a withered-up ground attack that managed just 15 yards from a banged-up Melvin Gordon. Michel was special from start to finish, showing speed and decisiveness on a screaming, 14-yard blast off-tackle for the team's third score -- and, two drives later, a patient, searching carry that saw him weave behind his right tackle before blasting through the heart of the Bolts defense for 40 yards. All four of New England's first four scores were triggered by players previously without a postseason touchdown. If Michel can operate this way against Kansas City next Sunday -- helping the Patriots to chew up minutes -- this team can make life tough on the Chiefs.

5. Chargers All-Pro corner and return man Desmond King was a difference maker against the Ravens, but hurt Los Angeles with a muffed catch on a punt return that bounced around before Patriots ace special-teamer Albert McClellan snatched it up along the sideline at the Los Angeles 35 with 3:22 left in the first half. Instead of floating into the break, Brady's collection of playmakers delivered the game's knockout punch with Michel's third score for a 35-7 blowout-in-progress. At the half, the Patriots had notched 23 first downs to L.A.'s 23 total plays. Game over.

6. The final two quarters floated by like a dark dream for the Bolts. Rivers played in visible pain, finishing with 335 yards, three scores and one pick. We learned along the way that play-by-play man Jim Nantz works out to Big Boi as the CBS broadcast team valiantly attempted to keep non-Patriots loyalists interested in an uneven matchup that saw New England amass 498 yards and own the ball for an outrageous 37-plus minutes.

7. What now for Rivers? He enters his age-38 season in 2019 and must wonder in the quiet hours if he'll ever get back to the playoffs again. This is a roster filled with talent, but Sunday felt sadly familiar for the Bolts faithful, with an agitated Rivers left to watch from the sideline as Brady dropkicked Father Time into another dimension to get New England back to yet another AFC title game. Come next Sunday, the Chiefs will make their plays and Patrick Mahomes can be counted on to spin his magic. The difference, though, likely boils down Kansas City's trio of Justin Houston, Chris Jones and Dee Ford doing what the Chargers could not: Make life hell for Brady.

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