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Patriots Dominate Chargers to Reach A.F.C. Championship Game

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When the New England Patriots win the pregame coin toss, they rarely elect to receive the opening kickoff. Coach Bill Belichick prefers to defer that option to the start of the second half.

But when the Patriots won the toss before their A.F.C. divisional playoff game against the upstart Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, they broke tradition and asked for the football immediately.

It was not impatience. Instead, the Patriots were eager to show the Chargers’ defense just what they had in store for them. That is the moment when the Chargers, a team considered among the best in the N.F.L. this season, should have known they were in trouble.

Led by Tom Brady, who completed 23 of his first 29 passes, New England scored touchdowns on each of its first four possessions, racing to a 28-point second quarter lead that they never relinquished in a 41-28 victory.

The result vaulted the Patriots into the A.F.C. Championship game next weekend at Kansas City, home of the top-seeded, high-scoring Chiefs. But with their rout of the Chargers, the Patriots made a statement that they may yet have the firepower to contend against the ascendant Chiefs, who lost to New England, 43-40, in October.

But that game was in Foxborough, where no Patriots victory, including the thrashing of the Chargers, is ever a surprise.

Still, New England’s utter dominance on Sunday of the Chargers, who came into the game with an offense and a defense each ranked in the N.F.L’s top 10, was almost shocking since the Chargers thoroughly manhandled a stout Baltimore Ravens team in the wild-card playoff round a week earlier.

But from the beginning Sunday it was obvious the Patriots were playing a far different offense from Baltimore’s one-dimensional offense and the Ravens’s rookie quarterback, Lamar Jackson.

It was also clear that Brady, who appeared to be slowed by a gimpy knee in the last quarter of the regular season, was more rested and that New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had devised a multifaceted game plan to deal with the six or seven defensive back zone defense the Chargers had used against the Ravens.

To start the game, Brady threw only short passes to his wide receivers and running backs in a fast-paced attack that had the Chargers reeling. With New England approaching the Los Angeles goal line on their opening drive, a key, early play came when Brady attempted a throw over the middle into the end zone for tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Gronkowski was being covered by cornerback Casey Heyward, who is seven inches shorter and 78 pounds lighter than Gronkowski. Heyward’s approach to his predicament was to bearhug Gronkowski throughout the play. When Brady’s pass arrived in Gronkowski’s vicinity, a defensive pass interference penalty was an obvious call. On the next play, New England’s Sony Michel rumbled into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.

The Patriots had run 14 plays and held the ball for more than seven minutes.

The Chargers tied the game later in the first quarter on a 43-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Philip Rivers to Keenan Allen, who was open in the end zone because of a Patriots defensive lapse.

But it proved to the high-water mark for the Chargers’ chances at victory. While the New England defense has been inconsistent this season, for most of Sunday’s game it flustered Los Angeles on the ground and in the air. Rivers, who has never beaten Brady in eight tries during his career and defeated the Patriots only once when Brady was injured, was repeatedly on the run and had a frustrating day, especially in the first half.

Rivers is also now 0-3 against New England in the postseason.

The Patriots broke the 7-7 tie when Michel dashed into the end zone from 14 yards on a trap play. The score was set up by two receptions by Julian Edelman that totaled 42 yards.

A 15-yard pass from Brady to Phillip Dorsett early in the second quarter put New England ahead, 21-7. Running back Rex Burkhead extended the lead to 21 points on a 6-yard touchdown run and Michel scored his third touchdown of the game on a 5-yard run for a 35-7 lead at intermission.

The Chargers rallied in the second half on a 1-yard touchdown run by Melvin Gordon and a 1-yard touchdown pass from Rivers to tight end Virgil Green, then added a touchdown in the final minute of the game on an 8-yard pass from Rivers to Antonio Gates.


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