Stop me if you've heard this one before: The prowess and abilities of an aging Tom Brady are doubted against a red-hot team that — pundits say — could finally be the one to topple the New England Patriots' empire in the postseason.
The joke's been told a dozen times, but the punchline is almost always the same when New England inevitably dismantles their opponent with surgical precision.
That was the story Sunday as the Patriots defeated the Los Angeles Chargers, 41-28, to advance to their eighth straight AFC Championship game.
The game started off looking like it would be a track meet as the Patriots and Chargers traded touchdowns on each team's opening drive, but that turned out to be the last time the game would remotely resemble a competition.
New England's offense went on a tear through the rest of the first half, scoring 28 unanswered points against Los Angeles. With only 30 minutes in each half, the Patriots held on to the ball for just over 20 of those as a gassed Chargers defense struggled to keep up.
Patriots rookie running back Sony Michel, who finished the day with 129 yards on the ground and a hat trick of three rushing touchdowns, said maintaining possession that long helped the offense.
"That's the kind of football we want to play," Michel said. "We want to drive the ball, we want to keep the ball, keep the possession. I think we did a good job of that and guys just kind of stayed focused and kept executing."
Meanwhile, the Patriots defense stuffed the Chargers, holding Los Angeles to only six first downs for the entire half. Quarterback Philip Rivers threw for 121 yards, but only had seven completions.
The Chargers finally seemed to get a spark when they forced the Patriots to punt for the first time late in the second quarter. But when Desmond King went back for the return, he muffed the punt. Although it appeared to go out of bounds, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick challenged the call, leading to a reversal and allowing New England to get the ball deep in Los Angeles' territory.
The Patriots ran the ball in four plays later to go up 35-7 after the PAT, a score they would take into the locker room.
The second half was slower offensively for the Patriots, who only scored two field goals after the break, but the damage was done. The defense kept the desperate Chargers' offense from going on a run, holding running back Melvin Gordon to 15 total yards rushing, while the Patriots continued to hold on to the ball on offense and eat up valuable clock.
Brady, who wasn't sacked over the course of the game, had his pick of where he wanted to throw the ball as he essentially sat back in the pocket without interruption. He completed 34 of 44 passes for 343 yards and a touchdown. He even rewrote history along the way.
New NFL record by Brady: 227 consecutive post-season passes without an interception.— Esteban Bustillos (@E_Bustillos4) January 13, 2019
Heading into the game, there was a lot of talk about the Chargers' defense and their use of multiple defensive backs. While that look worked against the Baltimore Ravens last week, the Patriots countered a similar defense by throwing underneath routes through Los Angeles' zone coverage.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman was the main beneficiary of that passing as he finished the day with nine catches for 151 yards.
"He's such a great player and just a great teammate, competitor and had a great game today," Brady said. "He came up big. We needed it and we'll need it next week, too."
After the game, the mood of the Patriots was relaxed. While players said they would take the night to celebrate the win, it was clear they were already focused on preparing for next week's conference championship.
"It's a blessing," said safety Devin McCourty. "You talk about the playoffs to go into a game and not know if you'll be at work next week, and to go zero-zero on the clock and know, 'Alright guys, I'll see you again tomorrow.' ... So [we'll] enjoy this for a couple of hours and then get ready to go for next week."
The Patriots are going to need all of the preparation they can get for what lies ahead. They'll be heading to Arrowhead Stadium to take on the Kansas City Chiefs and their high-powered offense.
While the Patriots beat them at Gillette, 43-40, in October, a lot has changed since then. First-year starter Patrick Mahomes was at the forefront of what an NFL quarterback can be as he scorched the NFL with 50 pass touchdowns and over 5,000 yards through the air over the course of the regular season.
"We had a tremendous game with them here earlier," Belichick said. "That was a long time ago. We'll see where we are now, see where they are."
Going into Sunday's contest, there were countless storylines to follow: Philip River's seeming inability to top Tom Brady; Brady's nagging issues with injuries this year; Boston's obsession with besting Los Angeles.
Next week, the biggest story will be the present vs. the future. The only team that can stop the Patriots from reaching their fourth Super Bowl in five seasons is the one that has helped push NFL passing and scoring to new levels. The stage is set for a battle between a team that represents where the league is, and a team that represents where the league may be going. Don't expect the Pats to have this one wrapped up before halftime.