Patriots dismantle Chargers, prove they're as dangerous as ever

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- This is what it is like to be the New England Patriots now, as they approach the conclusion of their second full decade of ownership of the AFC.

At the end of last week's wild-card game in Baltimore, as the Ravens and Los Angeles Chargers walked off the field, a fan in a Ravens jersey turned to a group of Chargers players as they headed into the tunnel. Instead of invective, he screamed what sounded like an urgent prayer: "Beat the Patriots!"

An undeniable whiff of Pats fatigue has crept in throughout the rest of the NFL this season. With a mix of incredulity and irritation, the conversations wonder how much longer this can possibly go on, the relentless marches through opponents, the inevitable postseason runs. The wait for the Patriots' demise is the one thing around which every other fan can rally, and this season their mortality was predicted and examined at a level of detail it had not previously reached. In almost every game, there was a moment that made you question if this time, really, the end was near. Tom Brady's knee and arm, Julian Edelman's hands, Rob Gronkowski's entire body -- was there anything besides Bill Belichick's brain that could be counted on anymore?

As it turns out, yes there is. The Patriots are alive, like the cliched movie monster you can't quite kill off. And if everybody else is tired of them, they suddenly don't look tired of anything at all. A refreshed Brady and a rested Patriots team reached deep into their history for a feels-familiar beatdown, a 41-28 humiliation of the Chargers on Sunday in the AFC Divisional Round. The details and the opponent are almost beside the point -- you have seen all of this before, many times -- unless you want to consider this absurdity:

In the first half, the Chargers ran 23 offensive plays. The Patriots had 24 first downs.

"We see our quarterback's too old, we're not good enough on defense, the skill players aren't good," safety Devin McCourty said. "We see it, but it doesn't affect how we prepare. We have already been counted out multiple times, so that never affects us."

This is what does: In the 17 campaigns in which Brady has played most of the season, he has taken the Patriots to the AFC Championship Game 13 times. That is 76.5 percent of his seasons. Even more incredible, in a league whose entire structure is designed to thwart dominance, the current run of eight consecutive AFC Championship Game appearances is roughly equivalent to the time we have been calling this the twilight of Brady's career.

"I just like winning," Brady said after a long pause and a glare at the person who asked if it is satisfying to prove people wrong, over and over again. "Just like winning."

Brady had already told Tracy Wolfson on CBS's postgame show that he knows everybody thinks the Patriots suck. Of course, nobody does and nobody has for a very long time. Next week's opponent, the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs, fit neatly into this narrative arc, though. It was their demolition of the Patriots early in the 2014 season that first set off the full-throated speculation about the Patriots' direction. Brady had been beaten up, the offensive line was shredded, and the Patriots were *on to Cincinnati*. That was four conference championship games (soon to be five) and two Lombardi Trophies ago, which should serve as all the reminder anyone needs that no matter how many times Brady may have seemed to shy from pressure this season, and how many offensive weapons were diminished or disappeared, the Patriots are formidable until proven otherwise.

It was apparent from the first series that the Chargers were probably not going to be the team to prove otherwise.

The Bolts came out in the same defensive-back-loaded defense they used to stymie Lamar Jackson and that Belichick said they used against the Patriots last season. Predictably, the Patriots picked it apart in their opening drive, a 14-play, seven-minute demonstration of surgical short passes. Then they passed and ran and manhandled their way to a complementary-football rout, with Brady passing for 343 yards and the Patriots rushing for 155.

It will be tempting to think of the AFC Championship Game as a potential passing-of-the-torch moment, and that suggestion produced at least one eye roll in the locker room. Wasn't the conference championship game against Andrew Luck supposed to be about passing the torch? That was four years ago and Brady has still not been supplanted by Luck or anyone else.

But New England barely held off the Patrick Mahomes-fueled Chiefs in an October thriller *at* Gillette Stadium, and the Patriots are 3-5 on the road this season, looking far more vulnerable away from Foxborough, even to lesser teams, than they did at home. The backbone of their dynasty has been home-field advantage, and they have not played an AFC Championship Game away from Gillette since they did it at the end of the 2013 and '15 seasons. Those were in Denver against Peyton Manning. The Patriots lost both of them.

So, we might someday look back at this game as the last gasp of the dying dynasty that has loomed over football since 2001, particularly because Gronkowski was notably noncommittal when he was asked if this might have been his final home game ever.

Beat the Patriots, they plead. Somebody will, someday. Maybe next Sunday in Kansas City, once and for all. But while the vigil continues, marvel for a moment at just how hard it is to kill the beast.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter at @judybattista

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