5 takeaways from the Patriots’ eye-opening obliteration of the Chargers

In his first playoff game since the Malcolm Butler fiasco, Bill Belichick once again appeared to have all the answers.

Julian Edelman
Julian Edelman runs with the ball during the first quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers. –Jim Davis/Globe Staff

COMMENTARY

Five takeaways from the Patriots’ eye-opening obliteration of the Chargers, a 41-28 win that gives Tom Brady his 28th career playoff win and punches New England’s ticket to an eighth-straight AFC championship…

Setting a tone from the start

Before the AFC championship game three years ago, the Patriots won the coin toss and broke from their own tradition. Typically a team that defers its kickoff reception to the second half when the heads or tails go its way, New England took the ball at the start of the game in an effort to set the tone immediately — and it backfired. The Pats punted after five plays, energized the hosts, and Peyton Manning marched the Broncos to a score that gave Denver a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.

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Sunday afternoon, Belichick went back to that strategy. And this time the plan worked perfectly.

Thanks to an ideal opening series, the Pats took possession of the ball and control of the game from the afternoon’s first play, opening with an eight-yard drive starter slung out to James White and never looking back. Never using either for more than three consecutive snaps, they threw eight passes and ran six times. They converted four third-down tries, three via the pass and one via penalty. That flag flew when Rob Gronkowski was interfered with in the end zone, and on the next play Sony Michel rammed it into the end zone.

After eating up 7 minutes, 11 seconds, and 83 yards, the Patriots led 7-0. They were in the very position they thrived within all season — playing from ahead at home — and they succeeded in instantly inserting some doubt into the minds of a Chargers team that came in riding high and with every reason to be confident.

To their credit, Los Angeles answered. New England’s secondary blew its coverage, and Keenan Allen went wide-open for a touchdown, but the successes of that first series seemed to carry over. The Patriots got the ball back, went 67 yards, and scored again on their next possession. And the possession after that. And the possession after that. By the time there was 6:04 left in the first half, the Pats had held the ball four times, run 35 plays, and led 28-7.

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It was exactly the start the Patriots had to be hoping for coming off a first-round bye. Exactly the start Belichick had in mind when he gave Tom Brady the ball to start. And exactly the start those eager to declare the end of the dynasty didn’t want to see.

Situational excellence

The performance was so dominant, and the game so one-sided — the final score wasn’t indicative of the true gulf between the teams — that the pivotal moments don’t stand out like they might in a tight game that comes down to a couple of plays. But Sunday it was the Patriots’ ability to seize those tilt-turning junctures that enabled New England to run away as quickly as it did.

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Specifically, it was the Pats’ excellence in the red zone, on third down, and Albert McClellan’s game-of-inches fumble recovery that effectively put things away by halftime.

Remember, New England generally struggled this season to convert trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line into touchdowns. Only after going 4-for-5 in the regular-season finale against the Jets did they get up to 15th in the league, at 59.7 percent. It was an 0-for-6 stretch on red zone tries that cost them dearly in losses at Miami and Pittsburgh, and over the three games preceding Sunday (even with that efficiency against the Jets) they were converting only 50 percent of opportunities.

It was a different story in the divisional round, however. The Pats reached paydirt on all five of their red-zone visits during the first half, and in a variety of fashions. Michel scored on goal-to-go runs from 1 and 5 yards out, plus a scamper from 14 yards away, while Rex Burkhead had a 6-yard rushing score and Phillip Dorsett hauled in a scoring pass from the 15.

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Dorsett’s TD came on third and six, part of a sequence that saw New England convert five of the six third downs it faced during the first half. (The Patriots were, again, in the middle of the pack this season in terms of third-down conversion percentage.) The one conversion bid the Pats failed to pick up resulted in their only punt of the first three quarters, but Desmond King dropped the ball when trying to corral it, and as the ball squirted toward the sideline McClellan sprawled out to snatch it. Initially it was ruled that the special teams ace was out of bounds when he established control, but video review revealed that he had indeed gained possession while still in the field of play. So the Pats took over. And four snaps later they had the 35-7 advantage they took to halftime.

If New England had performed in alignment with its season stats, and converted three of its five red-zone trips, maybe the scoreboard would’ve been different enough to give the Chargers legitimate belief. Maybe the same could be said if they’d failed to pick up those early first downs and on third-and-manageable. Or maybe if McClellan doesn’t nimbly stay in bounds Los Angeles manages to stem the early momentum and turn things around after finally forcing a punt. Instead, the Patriots piled up the plays that mattered. And it’s the Chargers who are left to ponder those maybe moments all offseason.

Edelman among the all-timers

At first, the revelation that Julian Edelman now rates behind only Jerry Rice in postseason receptions all-time is surprising. That’s not a knock on Edelman — it’s just that Edelman spent his first two seasons behind Wes Welker, played his third postseason primarily as a defensive back, missed most of his fourth season with injury, then sat out last year’s playoff after tearing his ACL in the preseason.

To that point, Edelman totaled just nine playoff catches for 75 yards over his first four pro seasons.

Since then, though, he has played in 11 postseason games — and he’s registered an even 1,100 yards on 89 receptions in that stretch. Sunday’s nine-catch, 151-yard effort was his eighth in that span with at least eight grabs, sixth with at least 98 yards, and it marked the 10th straight playoff contest in which he’s been targeted by Brady at least 10 times.

He’s toppled the 100-yard plateau in three of his past four postseason efforts, and Sunday he did so in signature fashion. He battled through tackles to find the yard marker. He picked up eight first downs in total. Then the punctuation came when he connected with Brady for a 35-yard hookup the likes of which only a quarterback and receiver entirely in sync could complete. It was vintage.

Speaking of vintage, Brady wasn’t bad either. After going 23 for 29 in the first half, he finished 34 of 44 for 343 yards and a score, he’s now completed 64 percent of his passes for 1,475 yards, nine TDs, and no interceptions over his four playoff games over the past two seasons.

Or, as some refer to that period of time, since the Patriots traded Jimmy Garoppolo and committed to moving toward the future with Brady.

The tradition continues… at running back

James White’s 15th reception allowed him to top his own team record and also tie the NFL’s all-time record for receptions in a playoff game, matching the mark held by now-Eagle Darren Sproles. And White wasn’t the only Patriot to continue the team’s long-honored tradition of getting major contributions from their running backs in the postseason.

In the vein of J.R. Redmond, Kevin Faulk, Shane Vereen, LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis, and White, Michel turned in a monster effort Sunday, winding up with three scores and 129 yards on 24 carries — and arguably running the ball even better than those 5.4 yards per carry would suggest. He broke off a 40-yarder at one point, showing a burst rarely seen this season. He showed power near the goal line. And he showed good vision to extend a couple of runs that seemed doomed to go nowhere early. If the score had been closer, and the Chargers hadn’t been so keyed on him late, he would likely have continued to pile up the yardage.

Still, he extended a remarkable string for the Pats. It began with Blount in the 2015 AFC title game against the Colts. It continued the next year with Lewis in the Divisional round, then with White in the Super Bowl. And then, Sunday, Michel became the fourth Patriots running back in the past four calendar years to score three touchdowns in a playoff game. That underscores how well the Pats have used the backs within their offense, even as the names have changed.

It might also underscore the team’s ability to identify a mismatch and scheme it in a way that opponents can’t adjust to before they’re able to defend it.

Don’t forget the defense

The tenets of complementary football say that it’s easier to play defense when the offense is doing its job on the other side, and the brilliance of the Pats offense certainly handled its business in that regard Sunday. New England held the ball for more than 38 minutes, and by the time Brian Flores’s group forced its third punt it was already playing with a three-score lead.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t bear significant responsibility for the victory. Los Angeles was limited to 2-for-6 on third down in the first half, which they finished in the midst of a string of five straight punts. Rivers, who completed 25 straight passes in a game earlier this season, wound up the day 25 for 51 passing, and the bulk of his 331 yards and three touchdowns came in garbage time.

New England hit Rivers seven times, including three by Adrian Clayborn, and got its hands on eight passes. Trey Flowers was, as usual, a force. Devin McCourty had two of the breakups and appeared to play as well in coverage as he has all year. Stephon Gilmore came up with a late interception and a maligned group of linebackers helped lead the way in holding the Chargers to 19 yards rushing on 10 tries.

The test gets tougher next Sunday, obviously, with a Chiefs attack that can do everything — and does everything well. But the Divisional round was supposed to be tougher, too. And yet, in his first playoff game since the Malcolm Butler fiasco, Belichick once again appeared to have all the answers.