The game started with Old Man Brady and Old Man Belichick limping onto the field, taking their vitamins, tossing their crutches aside and embarking on the longest playoff-opening drive of their many years together.
The Patriots—portrayed so often in recent weeks as doers of pool aerobics and watchers of blood pressure—removed their bifocals and went 83 yards in 14 plays against a Chargers defense that smothered the Ravens a week ago. The drive lasted an astounding seven minutes, 11 seconds, and 71-year-old Tom Brady and the Patriots converted four third downs along the way.
And like that, they reminded us what we always seem to forget: Nothing stops this team. Not even age. They are Jason. They are a vampire. They are the Terminator. They are impossible to kill.
Just when you count them out, they poke you in the eye. When you think Bill Belichick has lost it, he puts on a doctorate-level coaching clinic. If Brady has fallen off a cliff—hell, that is one gorgeous cliff.
Los Angeles tried that seven-defensive-backs defense that worked so well for it against Baltimore, and Belichick's scheme and Brady's execution obliterated it. They used a series of short passes and a physical running game that stretched the field horizontally, drew the Chargers to the line of scrimmage and then blew them off it.
It would only get worse, ending with a 41-28 score that was much closer than the game.
The Patriots will play at Kansas City next Sunday in the AFC title game. The matchup will be among the most interesting in recent years. The Chiefs have some of the brightest young stars in the game; the Patriots, well, don't. Brady may not really be 71, but he is 41, and their most dominant player of recent years, tight end Rob Gronkowski, has a body that ages in dog years.
Yet, for a team that was supposed to be getting knee replacements and telling everyone how they used to walk to school uphill both ways, boy, do the Patriots look spritely all of a sudden.
They aren't ready for those social security checks just yet.
After Sunday's game, there was a rare moment of Brady showing his true feelings about how the Patriots are perceived outside of New England. When CBS's Tracy Wolfson asked Brady about playing the Chiefs, he responded: "It'll be a good game. They're a good team. We played them earlier this year. You know, I know everyone thinks we suck. Can't win any games. So, we'll see. It'll be fun."
Well, damn, Tom.
That's how driven Brady is. Even after all the titles and the team and individual accolades, and after destroying the Chargers, he has that chip on his shoulder. The chip is older and showing some wear and tear, but it's still there and still pushing him.
The Patriots physically punished the Chargers in ways that team hadn't experienced this year. By halftime, the Patriots had a 35-7 lead, 347 total yards, 24 first downs (to the Chargers' six) and a 10-minute time-of-possession advantage.
Slowing down with age? Not a team coached by Belichick. The Patriots manhandled the Chargers on the field, and the strategy behind the manhandling was even more interesting. Belichick must have known that seven-DB scheme was coming, and he attacked it. The Patriots averaged 8.2 yards per play in their first 25 plays against L.A.'s seven-DB defense, per ESPN Stats and Info.
The Ravens' coaching staff looked totally overwhelmed, averaging 3.9 yards a play in 59 plays.
One of the players who was supposed to be headed toward retirement was Gronkowski. At times this season, the 29-year-old looked like he could barely walk. On Sunday, he could be seen ferociously engaging two blockers on one play and then on the next—a short touchdown run by Sony Michel on 1st-and-goal near the end the first half—blowing up linebacker Hayes Pullard off the ball and tossing him aside like he was bag of groceries.
In another example of the Patriots' brutality, in the third quarter, after Gronkowski made a catch in the middle, someone's mouthpiece went flying after some initial contact. Gronkowski kept rumbling.
That's old-man strength right there.
There are times, it seems, we take these Patriots victories for granted. We watch Brady and Belichick and respond with a shrug when we should respond with their own wing of the Hall of Fame.
If you dismiss their greatness because you hate them or think they only win because they cheat, you don't get it. What they are doing isn't about that. It never was, and it never will be.
It's about how they seem dead and then roar back to life. How they seem slow and then run right by you.
The Chargers couldn't stop them. Can the Chiefs? Can anyone?