The New England Patriots advanced to the AFC Championship Game for the eighth straight season by beating the Los Angeles Chargers 41-28 in the divisional round Sunday at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Tom Brady threw for 343 yards and a touchdown, and James White caught 15 passes for 97 yards. Sony Michel provided ground support, running for 129 yards and three scores.
Philip Rivers finished 25-of-51 for 331 yards and three touchdowns with an interception.
Patriots' Physical Approach the Perfect Counter for High-Powered Chiefs
The total yards illustrated the gulf between the Patriots and Chargers on Sunday. New England outgained Los Angeles 498-335.
The Patriots achieved that largely by dominating the point of attack. The New England offensive line ranked third in adjusted line yards and first in adjusted sack rate entering the divisional round, per Football Outsiders. That unit routinely manhandled the L.A. defensive line.
The Chargers didn't help themselves by loading up on defensive backs to guard against the pass.
The trend extended to when Los Angeles had the ball and needed to protect Rivers against the New England front seven. Though the Patriots recorded only two sacks, they consistently pressured Rivers and forced him into quick throws.
This is the recipe the Patriots need to recreate against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Kansas City allowed 405.5 yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry, both of which ranked second-worst in the NFL. The Chiefs will have a hard time pushing the Patriots offensive line backward and preventing Michel from getting to the second level.
The Baltimore Ravens, meanwhile, showed how much a defense can throw Patrick Mahomes off his game by hitting him 15 times in Week 14. Mahomes finished 35-of-53 for 377 yards and two touchdowns with an interception, and his 91.5 passer rating was his third-lowest of the season.
Beyond just the specter of playing the Patriots in the playoffs, New England presents Kansas City with a stylistic nightmare in the AFC title game.
Chargers' Playoff Window Remains Open
Chargers fans know better than to assume the team will be back in the postseason next year. The history of the franchise has been littered with peaks and valleys—brief stretches of success and then long droughts.
This was only Los Angeles' second playoff appearance since a four-year postseason streak from 2006 to 2009.
Having said that, the Chargers are positioned to bounce back. Almost all their key players are returning. Should they lose any one of their top free agents (Brandon Mebane, Adrian Phillips, Denzel Perryman and Tyrell Williams), it wouldn't be a crippling blow.
Rivers turned 37 in December, which raises some level of concern about his performance in 2019. However, his 68.3 percent completion rate in the regular season was the second-highest of his career. He was also third among qualified quarterbacks in defense-adjusted yards above replacement, per Football Outsiders.
Nothing indicates a precipitous decline is on the horizon.
Just as important, the Chargers will have Melvin Ingram III, Derwin James, Desmond King II and a healthy Joey Bosa helping to anchor a defense that improved from 15th to ninth in yards allowed, giving up 333.7 per game.
The outlook in the AFC West is unlikely to change too much. The Oakland Raiders are allowing Jon Gruden to tear down the roster in order to build it the way he wants it, while the Denver Broncos head into another offseason in need of a quarterback.
Even if the Chiefs repeat as division champions, the wild-card door will be open for the Chargers.
Sony Michel Will Help Extend Tom Brady's Reign
Bill Belichick took a calculated risk when he decided not to beat the four-year, $19.8 million contract offer Dion Lewis received from the Tennessee Titans, and Lewis took a shot at his former head coach after the Titans beat the Patriots in Week 10.
But Michel has more than validated Belichick's decision. The 2018 first-round draft pick is arguably the best runner New England has had since Corey Dillon.
Between 2013 and 2017, the Patriots ranked ninth, 18th, 30th, seventh and 10th in rushing yards. Their relatively inconsistent commitment to the running game is fine as long as Brady is playing at an elite level. It will present a problem if Brady starts showing signs of decline—a real consideration since he turns 42 in August.
Michel's presence adds the necessary balance for the Patriots offense so opposing defenses can't focus on Brady. The Chargers tried that approach, and it backfired spectacularly.
Next Gen Stats @NextGenStats
Sony Michel and the Patriots took advantage of the Chargers DB-heavy defense, despite clear run-pass predictability based on RB on-field: Michel: 82% Run Michel & Develin: 90% Run White: 97% Pass The Chargers did not stack the box once against 21 Personnel. #LACvsNE | #GoPats https://t.co/JsjAo7fovp
That makes life easier for Brady, and the less pressure the Patriots have to put on Brady, the longer he could extend his Hall of Fame career.
The Patriots will meet the Chiefs in the AFC title game. As the top seed, Kansas City will host the contest, which will kick off at 6:40 p.m. ET Jan. 20.