FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The car ride up I-95 from New York City to New England takes about three hours, give or take. As you approach the Rhode Island border, the reception from the Boston radio stations begins to come in clearly.
It was then, on the car ride north Saturday in advance of Sunday’s AFC divisional playoff game between the Patriots and Chargers at Gillette Stadium, when a caller on WEEI, the home station for the Patriots, ranted about Tom Brady.
The caller — sounding as apoplectic as an enraged Jets fan on WFAN screaming about how ticked off he was about the team’s search for a new head coach — had the audacity to go here:
“It just seems like he’s emotionally checked out,” the guy said in his thick New England accent.
This is how “checked out” Brady is: He and the Patriots dismantled the Chargers 41-28 in a game that represented more of a clinic than a contest and wasn’t remotely as close as the final score indicated.
Brady, who finished 34-of-44 for 343 yards, with a touchdown and a 106.5 rating, and the Patriots are going to the AFC Championship game for a remarkable eighth consecutive year. They’ll face the AFC’s No. 1-seeded Chiefs on Sunday in Kansas City.
All NFL fans should hope their star quarterback has “checked out” the way that spoiled and misinformed fan claimed Brady was entering Sunday’s game.
“I know everyone thinks we suck and can’t win any games,” Brady said, chip firmly chiseled on shoulder, in a postgame, on-field interview with CBS. “We’ll see.”
There’s the moral to the story the Patriots told across three hours of this annihilation Sunday: You cannot kill them.
Not as long as Brady is still quarterbacking the team and Bill Belichick is still coaching it.
“We’re not a very talented team and we’re an aging team, so we know we have to play with a lot of effort,” Patriots veteran special teams captain Matthew Slater said, tongue firmly planted in cheek. “I try to avoid that noise as much as I can, but it does creep in obviously. We know how people feel about us. And that’s OK. We’ve had our struggles this year, and there are a lot of good football teams out there.”
Asked what Sunday’s performance said about the state of his talent-poor, aging team, Slater smiled and said, “That we’ve still got a little left in the tank.”
Like it or not, whether you’re not a believer in the latest rotation of role players Belichick has plugged in this season and/or are not a fan of how ugly some of the wins have come, understand this: The Patriots are as dangerous as they’ve ever been right now.
Because the 2018 Patriots didn’t dominate the way they have in past seasons, because they hadn’t put away the rest of the weaklings in the AFC East before Halloween, because Brady’s numbers didn’t look like Patrick Mahomes’ in Kansas City with 50 touchdowns and 5,000 passing yards, the Patriots were considered by many an afterthought this postseason.
By even their own fans.
“You do hear things like that,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said. “We’ve been hearing that for years now. We laugh at it and keep moving forward.”
After what Brady, Belichick and the Patriots did to a Chargers team that entered the day with a 13-4 record, including 8-1 on the road, why on earth can’t they beat the Chiefs and get to their third consecutive Super Bowl and NFL-record 11th in franchise history?
If you think the Chiefs didn’t watch the Patriots boat-race the Chargers and take notice of New England’s most complete performance of the season with a wary eye toward Sunday at Arrowhead, you’re as clueless as that Saturday afternoon caller on WEEI.
By halftime, with the Patriots leading 35-7, New England had two more first downs (24) than the Chargers had total offensive plays (22). The Patriots scored touchdowns on their first four possessions, taking a 28-7 lead.
There was a distinct feeling of familiarity at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, from the frigid 20-degree New England air right down to Jon Bon Jovi, friend of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, reveling in the owner’s box while his hit song, “Livin’ on a Prayer,” blared over the stadium speakers and through the hoarse throats of the delighted locals.
There was Brady doing his thing, shredding the soft zone defense the Chargers inexplicably refused to adjust out of with what felt like a million paper cuts, an endless series of first-down completions underneath.
With the Patriots 20-3 in playoff games under the watch of Belichick and Brady at Gillette Stadium, Sunday’s party felt like a recurring New Year’s Eve celebration, an annual rite of the season.
Everyone on the Patriots, beginning with Brady, looked all in and pretty emotionally invested. The only people who looked like they had “checked out” were the Chargers.
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