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Now, Only Patrick Mahomes II Can Save Us From Another Patriots Super Bowl Appearance

New England cruised to its eighth AFC championship game in as many years by rolling over the Chargers and somehow looking invincible after the team’s worst regular season in recent memory

Divisional Round - Los Angeles Chargers v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Like Dementors, the New England Patriots suck out the humanity of their opponents each year without fail. On Sunday they atomized the Chargers 41-28, and now they are heading to their eighth consecutive AFC championship game, an unfathomable accomplishment given the parity that defines the rest of the NFL, and even more unfathomable because this looked like the first Patriots team in nearly a decade that would be truly mortal. We need to find a Patronus, fast.

This Patriots team did not look like a juggernaut in the regular season. They lost to the Jaguars, the Lions, and the Titans by a combined 51 points. They blew a game against the hapless Dolphins on a miraculous play when Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake made Rob Gronkowski look like a hulking scarecrow. They struggled to put away the Bills on Monday Night Football when Buffalo was starting Derek Anderson at quarterback less than two weeks after he joined the team. Gronkowski was a shell of himself, Julian Edelman didn’t look 100 percent healthy during the season, running backs Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead missed long stretches with injuries, left tackle Trent Brown tied for the second-most quarterback hits allowed, and Brady looked flat-out old for the final stretch of the year. Sunday’s matchup against a dynamic Chargers team that thrived on the road looked less than ideal.

Naturally, the Patriots obliterated the Chargers in one of the most dominant playoff victories since … last year, when New England beat the Titans 35-14 in the divisional round. Yet, this game was one of the most dominant performances of the entire Brady-Belichick era. The Patriots were up an unfathomable 35-7 at halftime and flirted with becoming the first NFL team to score 42 points in the first half. Here are the Chargers’ first-half drives:

Touchdown
Punt
Punt
Punt
Punt

And here are the Patriots’ drives in the first half:

Touchdown
Touchdown
Touchdown
Touchdown
Punt that was muffed and recovered by New England, which scored a touchdown.

End of half

“The Chargers are little,” Tony Romo said as he surveyed the first-half wreckage. “They need movement.”

Romo was right. The Chargers dominated Baltimore’s run defense in the wild-card round with smaller defensive backs because their defensive linemen were keying on the Ravens’ tells and they were unafraid of Lamar Jackson burning them in the air. New England didn’t offer any clues to what it was running, and the result was New England bullying the Chargers’ smaller personnel off the field. Michel had 105 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 16 carries by halftime. New England’s rushing dominance was so complete that it held the ball for more than 20 of the 30 minutes in the first half. Brady also shredded the Chargers effortlessly in the passing game, completing 34 of 44 passes for 343 yards (7.8 yards per attempt), one touchdown, and a 106.5 passer rating as the Chargers stuck to zone coverage rather than man, which has generally been more effective against Brady in his career.

And instead of playing conservatively in the second half, the Patriots continued to go for L.A.’s throat. On the first Pats drive of the second half, they faced a fourth-and-2 at the Chargers 16-yard line, well within the field goal range of Stephen Gostkowski. Instead of kicking a field goal with the team up 35-7, Belichick kept the offense on the field. Michel ran up the gut for 7 yards and a first down.

Sunday’s win was both surprising and inevitable, as we’ve all become familiar with the dark cloud that envelopes the country each January and February. The Patriots’ postseason accomplishments are nothing short of staggering; the team is now 20-3 at home in the playoffs under Belichick and has reached 13 AFC championship games in 18 seasons (many franchises wish they could have 13 winning records in 18 seasons). Belichick is widening the gap between himself and coaches like Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh, both of whom put indelible marks on the game but served as NFL head coaches for only 10 seasons. The Patriots have won 16 of the past 17 AFC East titles, and their record in the AFC championship game under Belichick (8-4) would make for the highest winning percentage of any active NFL head coach in the regular season. When the league is at its most competitive in the playoffs, the Patriots are still head and shoulders above every other organization.

Perhaps New England’s soul-sucking run will continue next week against the Chiefs, who they attacked with a strong running game in their win in Week 6. The only thing in between us and Brady and Belichick’s ninth Super Bowl is Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes II, which is to say that our only hope is Mahomes. Please, save us Mahomes.