Final, Patriots 41-28: For the eighth consecutive year, the New England Patriots are headed to the AFC Championship Game.
Facing what should have a difficult matchup against a Los Angeles Chargers team that won 12 games during the regular season, the Patriots asserted their dominance from the opening snap, scoring touchdowns on their first five possessions en route to a 41-28 victory at Gillette Stadium.
New England will travel to Kansas City next Sunday to take on the top-seeded Chiefs with a trip to Super Bowl LIII on the line.
Sony Michel (129 rushing yards, three touchdowns), James White (career-high 15 catches for 97 yards) and Julian Edelman (nine catches for 151 yards) all turned in stellar performances for the Patriots’ offense, as did their O-line, which cleared holes in the running game and kept LA’s talented pass rushers away from Tom Brady.
Brady completed 34 of 44 passes for 343 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions, and Ryan Allen punted just once before the fourth quarter. (That punt was muffed and recovered by the Patriots.)
Defensively, the Patriots battered Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, hitting him seven times and pressuring him throughout the afternoon. New England also broke up eight passes in the win, and Stephon Gilmore recorded a fourth-quarter interception.
The AFC title game will be a rematch of Week 6, when the Patriots defeated the Chiefs 43-40 in an instant classic at Gillette. This will be their first visit to Arrowhead Stadium since their infamous blowout loss there in Week 4 of the 2014 season.
Fourth quarter, 4:40, Patriots 41-22: A perfect punt by Ryan Allen pinned the Chargers at their own 1-yard line, and an interception by Stephon Gilmore gave possession back to the Patriots at the Chargers’ 33.
Fourth quarter, 7:38, Patriots 41-22: Touchdown, Chargers.
Philip Rivers connected with Keenan Allen on a deep pass that initially was ruled incomplete, then was ruled down at the 1-yard line. One play later, Rivers found Virgil Green for a 1-yard touchdown pass and hit Allen on the ensuing two-point conversion.
Nate Ebner recovered the ensuing onside kick for the Patriots.
Fourth quarter, 9:39, Patriots 41-14: Patriots punt. Chargers ball.
Fourth quarter, 11:47, Patriots 41-14: Trey Flowers and Adam Butler planted Philip Rivers into the turf to cap another Chargers three-and-out.
The Patriots were called for running into the kicker on the ensuing punt, but the Chargers declined the penalty, which would not have given them a first down.
Fourth quarter, 12:23, Patriots 41-14: A 30-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal pushed the Patriots over the 40-point plateau. They’re fully in control as this game winds down.
The highlight of their latest drive was a 35-yard catch-and-run by Julian Edelman, who now is up to 151 receiving yards on nine catches. James White also had a 23-yard catch-and-run.
Third quarter, 1:16, Patriots 38-14: Buoyed by a questionable Trey Flowers roughing the passer penalty and a defensive holding call on Stephon Gilmore, the Chargers found the end zone for the first time since the first quarter.
Melvin Gordon did the honors, capping a five-minute drive with a 1-yard touchdown run.
Third quarter, 6:31, Patriots 38-7: The Patriots drained more than seven minutes off the clock with a 14-play drive that culminated an a Stephen Gostkowski field goal.
The series included a 7-yard run by Sony Michel and Rob Gronkowski’s first reception of the day — a vintage 22-yard catch-and-run during which the tight end muscled his way through multiple Chargers defenders.
Third quarter, 13:53, Patriots 35-7: Nothing doing for the Chargers on the opening drive of the second half. They gained just 3 yards on three plays, with Adam Butler flying untouched through the line to force a third-down incompletion.
Philip Rivers, who’s faced heavy pressure all game, was visibly furious at his offensive line after that one.
Halftime, Patriots 35-7: The clock expired before the Patriots could add to their commanding lead. Time continued to run after Phillip Dorsett was tackled out of bounds, and the officials did not immediately reset the ball, infuriating Tom Brady.
The Chargers will receive the second-half kickoff.
Second quarter, 1:02, Patriots 35-7: After McClellan’s fumble recovery, the Patriots needed just four plays to find the end zone yet again, with Sony Michel running one in from 5 yards out for his third touchdown of the afternoon.
This marks just the fourth time in Patriots history that a player has rushed for three touchdowns in a postseason game. Michel did it in one half.
The Patriots then forced a quick three-and-out on the ensuing drive (highlighted by Trey Flowers’ first-down sack and J.C. Jackson’s third-down pass breakup) and now will look to extend their already gargantuan lead before halftime.
Second quarter, 3:22, Patriots 28-7: The Patriots’ offense went three-and-out for the first time today, but Desmond King muffed the ensuing punt, and Albert McClellan recovered, extending New England’s drive.
McClellan, a special teams ace who deflected two punts during a loss to Miami late in the regular season, has been a phenomenal midseason pickup for the Patriots.
Second quarter, 4:16, Patriots 28-7: Dont’a Hightower, who’s having an excellent game as a pass rusher, pressured Philip Rivers on third down, forcing an incompletion and the third consecutive Chargers punt.
Stephon Gilmore also broke up a deep pass to Tyrell Williams earlier in the drive. The Chargers have not scored since their opening possession.
Second quarter, 6:04, Patriots 28-7: Four possessions, four touchdowns.
The Patriots’ offense continues to run roughshod over the Chargers’ defense, getting a 25-yard catch-and-run by James White and a 40-yard run by Sony Michel to set up a 6-yard score by Rex Burkhead.
Michel already is up to 95 rushing yards to go along with his two touchdowns, and White has 67 receiving yards on seven catches. The Patriots also benefited from a defensive pass interference penalty that gave them a free first down on third-and-2.
Tom Brady is 16 of 20 for 183 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions.
Second quarter, 9:19, Patriots 21-7: The Patriots’ pass rush is giving Philip Rivers problems.
Pressure by Trey Flowers and Patrick Chung on second and third down helped force two Rivers incompletions (with Devin McCourty nearly intercepting the second), resulting LA’s second punt of the afternoon.
Kyle Van Noy also had a nice run stuff against Melvin Gordon on first down after Gordon had notched an 11-yard catch-and-run and an 8-yard carry earlier in the drive.
Second quarter, 12:17, Patriots 21-7: This has been an offensive clinic from the Patriots, who have found the end zone on each of their first three possessions.
New England’s third score came on a 15-yard strike to Phillip Dorsett in the corner of the end zone on third-and-6.
Dorsett, who also had an 11-yard catch earlier in the drive, has caught each of his last 18 targets. Tom Brady has not missed when throwing to him since Week 4.
Speaking of reliable receivers, Julian Edelman caught two more passes for 27 yards on the drive to move past Reggie Wayne and into second place on the NFL’s all-time postseason receptions list. Only the great Jerry Rice has more.
First quarter, 0:24, Patriots 14-7: After allowing a touchdown on the Chargers’ first drive, the Patriots forced a three-and-out on their second. Adrian Clayborn and Dont’a Hightower got pressure on Philip Rivers on second and third down, forcing two straight incompletions and an LA punt.
First quarter, 1:35, Patriots 14-7: The Patriots quickly reclaimed the lead thanks to some hard running by Sony Michel and two big plays by Julian Edelman.
Michel opened the drive with a 14-yard carry and capped it with a 12-yard touchdown scamper.
In the interim, Edelman fought his way through two Chargers defenders to turn a quick out into a first down, then got behind LA’s linebackers to pick up 28 yards on a crossing route. Both catches came off play action.
First quarter, 4:56, 7-7: Keenan Allen’s first catch of the afternoon was a big one.
Allen capped the Chargers’ opening possession by hauling in a 43-yard touchdown from Philip Rivers. An apparent miscommunication involving Stephon Gilmore left LA’s top receiver wide open on the play.
The Chargers converted a third-and-15 earlier in the drive, with Mike Williams beating Jason McCourty for an 18-yard gain. Williams received medical attention after the play but missed just one snap before returning to the field.
First quarter, 7:49, Patriots 7-0: The Patriots opened the game with a statement drive, marching 83 yards in 14 plays and opening the scoring with a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Sony Michel.
Patriots running backs touched the ball on 12 of those 14 plays, with Michel rushing six times for 15 yards and James White catching five passes on five targets for 45 yards. We expected White to be a major factor today given LA’s issues covering running backs in the passing game, and he’s certainly been that thus far.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski also drew a pass interference penalty in the end zone to set up Michel’s score.
The Chargers utilized their quarter package (seven defensive backs) for much of the opening drive, but they lost safety Adrian Phillips to what appeared to be a shoulder/arm injury midway through the series.
Phillips has essentially been playing linebacker of late, allowing the Chargers to keep more DBs on the field. If he cannot continue, LA would need to rethink its defensive strategy.
First quarter, 15:00, 0-0: The Patriots won the opening coin toss and, in a departure from their usual M.O., chose to receive. They’ll get the ball first as we get underway at Gillette Stadium.
Before the national anthem, the Patriots asked for a moment of silence in honor of Chargers defensive tackle Brandon Mebane’s infant daughter, Makenna, who tragically died before LA’s wild-card game.
Mebane did not play against the Baltimore Ravens but is active today.
12:52 p.m.: One final note before kickoff, courtesy of NFL Media’s Michael Giardi:
Edelman is a hugely important player in New England’s offense, and Tom Brady has been especially reliant on him in the postseason. The wide receiver has been targeted 10 or more times in each of his last nine playoff games.
12:15 p.m.: Tom Brady’s pregame entrance has been the subject of much speculation in recent weeks. He cut it short ahead of the Patriots’ final few regular-season games, fueling speculation that he might be dealing with an injury.
Today, he jogged the length of the field, punctuating his trot with a fist pump when he reached the far end zone. Read into that what you will.
11:35 a.m.: Here are the Patriots’ inactives for today:
Deatrich Wise is a surprise inactive. He was listed as questionable with an ankle injury, but initial reports indicated he was expected to play.
This is the first game Wise has missed in his Patriots career. Fellow defensive end Ufomba Kamalu also will sit out this game as a healthy scratch.
With Wise down, Adrian Clayborn draws back into the lineup after two consecutive healthy scratches.
Stephen Anderson is a healthy scratch after being promoted from the practice squad this week. With Jacob Hollister now on injured reserve, Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen will be the Patriots’ only tight ends today.
Chargers tight end Hunter Henry is active for the first time this season after missing his team’s first 17 games with a torn ACL. Here are LA’s inactives:
10 a.m.: The temperature at Gillette Stadium currently is a balmy 16 degrees, with a kickoff temperature of 24 degrees expected. That would make this the coldest game either team has played this season.
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has little experience in games this cold. He’s 1-3 in his career when the kickoff temperature is below 30 degrees, with his last start in such conditions coming back in 2013.
Tom Brady, meanwhile, is 23-4 in sub-30 degree temperatures, including 11-1 in the playoffs.
8 a.m. ET: Good morning from frigid Foxboro, Mass., where the New England Patriots are preparing to host the Los Angeles Chargers in the divisional round of the 2018 NFL playoffs.
The Chargers, who finished 12-4 during the regular season, got here by beating the Baltimore Ravens 23-17 in the wild-card round. The 11-5 Patriots received a first-round bye as the AFC’s No. 2 seed. Winner advances the AFC Championship Game next Sunday in Kansas City.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images