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Knee Jerk Reactions to the Divisional Playoff: Patriots vs. Chargers

Things to consider while asking if 13 trips to your conference championship in 17 years and 16 postseason games with a 100-plus passer rating is good:

–I’ve written a Knee Jerk for every single Patriots game since about 2002. And in all that time if there’s one criticism I’ve gotten more than any other it’s that I don’t include enough Frederick Nietzsche. Duly noted. Allow me to rectify that. Nietzsche might not have been the biggest barrel of laughs, but one idea Ol’ Freddie Perspectivism came up with that I like it the concept of Amor Fati. Literally “Love of Fate.” What we commonly refer to as “taking the bad with the good.” He imagined a thought experiment where a demon traps you into a Groundhog Day-like existence where you have to live your life over and over again the exact same way for eternity. Nietzsche’s philosophy was that, instead of taking it as torture, you should embrace the chance. To love your fate, the mistakes, the failures, the suffering, the triumphs. All of it, with no regrets or desire to change a thing. With the Patriots heading to the championship game for the unimaginable eighth straight season, I’m Amor-ing my Fati of the entire Year of Negativity that was 2018. All of it. The reports of bad blood on the team, the benchings, the weird Facebook videos, the endless talk about disgruntled players and cliffs and declines and retirements and pliability and lost free agents and a coach who lost his locker room. All the time and calories I’ve burned pushing back against it all. It’s all brought us to here. Yet again.This is our lives as Patriots fans in the 21st century. And I wouldn’t change a thing.

–You could print out the entire Patriots roster, cut the names up onto individual pieces of paper, spin them in a rotating Bingo drum and pull one out at random and you’ll find someone who deserves enormous credit for blowing out a team I heard all week was “better” than the Pats. More talented. More Pro Bowlers. Younger. With better athletes. Simply a superior team who would’ve been huge favorites on a neutral field with equal rest and so on. So I could start anywhere. But I’m going to start with probably the most underappreciated unit on the team, the offensive line.

–This was the best defensive front they’ve faced all year. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram were the dual-threat, pass-rushing ends they weren’t going to handle. An unstoppable two-man menace. The football equivalent of the Moncada brothers from Breaking Bad. And yet thanks to the way Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon manhandled them, you couldn’t have found them yesterday unless you enabled Location Services on their phones and sewed them into their skin, Joker-style.

–For the most part it was Cannon on Bosa and Brown on Ingram, though Gus Bradley flips them fairly regularly. For instance on the opening drive with the Patriots facing a 2nd & 11, Bosa tried to come outside on Brown, who dwarf-tossed him 12 yards back deep into the Pats backfield as Brady connected with Sony Michel in the flat for 9. And the two tackles got help thanks to a pretty much flawless team blocking scheme with zero communication breakdowns as far as I could see. Like the second possession, when Brown took a blitzing corner as Joe Thuney peeled out on Bosa and Michel ran inside behind his block for 10-plus on 1st & 10. They consistently kept the edges of the pocket clean, high-handing Bosa and Ingram to keep them off balance and out-muscling them throughout.

–As a matter of fact, if they had another home game coming up, I’m not sure Brady would even have thrown that uniform in the hamper. When my kids jeans are that clean, I tell him to just put them back in the drawer and wear them tomorrow. But it wasn’t all about stopping the ends. They dominated the interior of the Chargers Front-7 with a power-running attack, first out of 1-back sets behind Dwayne Allen, and then later out of a lot of I- and Offset-I looks with James Develin. And remarkably, Bradley tried to stop them with the some of the same 6- and even 7-defensive back looks he used against Baltimore last week. It did not go well for him.

–On the first touchdown, the Pats came out with their 23-personnel, “Tank” formation, with Michel and Develin behind three tight ends, including LaAdrian Waddle. The Chargers hustled corner Casey Hayward off the field in favor of a bigger body. Though they overlooked one tiny detail by sending no body at all in to replace him. Facing a 10-man defense, Brown combo-blocked Damian Square along with Thuney as Thuney then took on Ingram (meaning he blocked 20 percent of all available Chargers) and Develin plowed the road on Kyle Emanuel.

–But more than anyone else, it was Rob Gronkowski playing the role of third tackle, pulling to throw Wham blocks, coming up to the second level to seal off backside pursuit. He was all over the field throwing his weight around. And seeing how he looked a month ago, struggling to make arm blocks and getting beaten by guys half his size, this has to make you think he’s getting healthier. Because he went through that defense like he was Michael Myers and they were all babysitters.

–On Michel’s second touchdown, Gronk bounced up to take out LB Hayes Pullard as Cannon handled Ingram on the outside and Shaq Mason absolutely earholed Darius Philon. And Michel never had to slip a tackle. On Burkhead’s touchdown (on his first touch of the game, if I’m not mistaken), Gronk disintegrated Kyle Emanuel. I’ll leave the speculation about whether it was his last game ever in Gillette to another time and just say if you can appreciate the fine art of an elite physical specimen beating the bag out of opponents as opposed to just running free and catching passes over them, then this was the game for you.

–The bottom line offensively is that it was this unit’s ability to Bumblebee themselves into whatever form it takes to attack an opponent’s weakness that has them in the AFC championship game. Three weeks ago against Buffalo they ran the 1978 Patriots rushing attack. Against the Jets, it was all Fly Sweeps, End Arounds to stretch the defense horizontally and Play Action off of those, which I thought we’d see more of yesterday. But instead, Josh McDaniels just went big against small, power against speed. As Bill Parcells used to say, as the season goes on, fast guys slow down, but big guys don’t get smaller.

–Allow me a quick interjection here, but I was talking to a friend of a friend in a bar over the weekend and he was like the tenth person to tell me Bumblebee is incredible. Which in and of itself is more odd-defying than eight straight conference title appearances given that all the other Transformers movies felt like having the shelf in an auto parts store tip over onto your head. Michael Bay has a lot to answer for. But I digress.

–How good was the blocking? So good that I’m 1,200 words into this and haven’t gotten to Julian Edelman. Appearing in his first postseason game since the Super Bowl against Atlanta, he came up as huge as … he did in the Super Bowl against Atlanta. In his last four postseason games he’s averaging 7.5 receptions and 123 yards. Which makes this as good a time as any to bring those numbers up to his doubters. And I’m not talking to the ones who said he wouldn’t bounce back after a positive PED test. I’m skipping them and going straight to the ones who said he’d never be able to replace Wes Welker. Six years ago. He’s now the No. 2 all time pass receiver in playoff history, despite missing 2012 and last year with injuries. So … how do you think he’s doing so far?

–The thing is, the Chargers were supposed to have the answer for him in slot corner Desmond King, who’s pissed off he didn’t make the Pro Bowl. But Bradley stuck to his guns playing Zone, against an offense that drizzles Zone on their Eggos. And Edelman gutted it. He had that 28-yarder where he was in the weak side slot. Cordarelle Patterson as the Z-receiver drew the attention of the linebackers and Minitron got behind him. Running what I think is the option route the Pats call “Pistol” where he runs straight up the seam if the middle of the field is open (MOFO) and a cross if it’s closed (MOFC), Edelman saw a Single High Safety, stemmed it off and caught the pass in stride. On the Phillip Dorsett touchdown, he drew all the attention in a “China” combo route, where the inside man runs to the flat and the outside man runs a stick. The progression there is flat-to-stick, and I think Brady side-eyed Edelman just enough to get King to bite and Dorsett outran him to the corner of the end zone for the score.

–But Edelman’s greatest moments were him just being the most mentally and physically toughest grown man running around in the Chargers secondary. Taking a hit right to the 10-ring and holding onto the ball. Fighting through a Casey Hayward tackle and diving for a key 1st down. Blocking upfield alongside Chris Hogan against the 7-DB defense on that first drive pitch to James White that went for 17 yards. In short, he was the kind of royal pain in the ass that drives you mental when a 5-10 guy is doing it to you, but sells shipping containers filled with No. 11 jerseys when he’s yours.

–Which should finally bring me to Brady. Who was an absolute razor throughout, Yes, he had time to throw. But when he had to move, he moved without effort and without ever taking his eyes off his reads. His spirals had the spin of an industrial lathe, with zero wobble. He threw with touch when he could and a Chris Sale fastball when he needed to. None better the the absolute crossbow bolt he fired at Dorsett to set up the third touchdown. When he wasn’t moving and throwing the ball at the top of his game he was keeping the Chargers off balance by selling the misdirections and Play Action like a Parisian mime, only without the creep factor. Since the Arabs invented numerals, no statistic has ever been more misleading than the fact Brady gets credit for 343 passing yards and Philip Rivers gets 331. Which is like calling Ivan Drago vs. Apollo Creed a split decision.

–Defensively, this was the most aggressive the Pats have been right out of the gate in recent memory. Usually you get that one or two series where they’re keeping it to their My First Defense by Hasbro gameplan, and make adjustments based on what’s being thrown at them. But not this time. Surprisingly against a guy with Rivers’ experience, they went with a lot of Cover-1 Man and even some Cover-0, loaded the box (Pat Chung lived down near the line of scrimmage) and dared Rivers to shoot his shots. And it worked brilliantly. All things considered and ignoring the irrelevant garbage time that was the entire 2nd half, this was their best defensive showing of the season. And Brian Flores is coaching like a man with nothing to lose, which I guess is a good thing.

–Most of the credit belongs to the linebacking corps, who played a lot of 3-LB sets, which is rare now. I’m still trying to figure out who John Simon is, but he got a lot of snaps and is starting to become this year’s Kyle Van Noy, that guy who’s smarter and more instinctive than he is super athletic. Who knows his role and sticks with it, rather than making the sexy play you’ll be talking about in the parking lot over postgame beers.

–They went to the one down lineman/six guys standing around State Worker Front sooner than they have all year and it worked to near perfection, confusing the protection and creating pressure with only four rushers. They had one where they were showing about a six man blitz until Devin McCourty dropped, then Van Noy covered Justin Jackson before dropping him to the ground like a paving stone, and Adam Butler came clean to force Rivers out of the pocket and a punt. That’s a look they started using earlier in the year where nothing else was working. But now it’s their most consistent call.

–And the Patriots defensive ends were what the Chargers’ ends were expected to be. Right from the opening possession, Adrian Clayborn was in the backfield disrupting throws. Trey Flowers is making himself a rich man, pass rush after pass rush. Just watching him flush Rivers out of the pocket, force an incompletion, gently lay his hand on Rivers’ back and frustrate Rivers into taking a bitchy swipe at him should get him another $500,000 in up-front money. As Holly Gennaro McClain said of her husband, only Trey could make someone that angry.

–Speaking of which, what’s eating Rivers. He’s a competitive guy, and everything. Let’s not forget him screaming after losing to the Pats in the 2006 Divisional game in San Diego that Ellis Hobbs was “the sorriest corner in the league.” And that’s not the worst trait to have. But holy moly was he a catty little debutante all day. Bellyaching to the refs for calls every other play. Making the Peyton Manning Face on the sidelines. Barking at his teammates. He probably produced another baby between the Baltimore game and this one and hasn’t slept, but someone is a Mr. Crankypants.

–This Week’s Applicable Move Quote: “Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have fucked with? That’s me. Get off my lawn.” – Walt Kowalski, Gran Torino

–I’ve talked before about how there’s a gene encoded in the Chargers DNA, going all the way back to Don Coryell, Marty Schottenheimer and Norv Turner that causes them to do stupid things in big moments. And they Norved up their usual number of times in this one. That 10 men on the field on 1st & goal from the one. Three delay of game penalties. A fumbled punt. Bringing in Nick Rose just for kickoffs, only to watch as he drops one to Patterson at the 11 so he can run it back to the 33. I count on them Norving things up every time the Pats play them and then never let me down. And even changing cities didn’t change their basic genetic body chemistry.

–Once again, the coverage was exceptional, the passing yardage be damned. Stephon Gilmore had that one major glitch for LA’s opening touchdown. And in Cover-1 like they were and him matched up on Keenan Allen running a Go route is the very definition of “You had one job,” so I have no idea why he was heading for the intermediate middle of the field. But beyond that, he shut down one of the best wideouts in the game. Gilmore doesn’t play press and he doesn’t play soft coverage. He mirrors his man right off the line, which coaches will tell you takes more skill and athleticism than just jamming him off his route. He’s tight enough to still take away options and make a receiver declare what he’s running, and then gets into the route with him. That’s as close to “shutdown” as you’re going to see in this Arena League age we live in.

–And JC Jackson continues to play like a future recipient of a contract extension. Taking on Mike Williams, he made a perfect play on a ball, batting it down with his upfield arm while, predictably, Rivers and Tony Romo begged for a call. But to me the most telling play he made was actually on a 1st down conversion, when Williams reached up to high point a crossing route, but Jackson was right on his heels and hauled him down for no extra yards. That’s against a guy he’s giving away three inches and 25 lbs to. There’s your reason this kid has gone from healthy scratch to an every down corner in just a couple of months.

–All the credit in the world to Sarah Thomas for being a pioneer in her field. I wish her all the best and hope she becomes the top official in the league some day. The female Ed Hochuli. I mean that sincerely, unlike the joke I made yesterday about her making 78 percent of what the men make, which served as a good reminder that half of Twitter doesn’t speak Satire. Whatever. There will be plenty of female officials in the league very soon, and she’s breaking down barriers. Which is good. I will just add that if the Irish Rose’s mom was an official, she wouldn’t say what she threw the flag for, then assess the penalty at our next major family holiday. But Sarah Thomas is a true pro.

–This could be Gronk’s last few games, but it definitely should be the end of the line for Antonio Gates, one of the best there has ever been. I only hope his post-football career doesn’t involve shilling for workout pills during It’s Always Sunny reruns on Viceland. You deserve better, Frank Thomas.

–Possibly my favorite moment of the entire game was Brady leaving the field bullshit at halftime, clinging to a 35-7 lead because they missed the chance to make it 38-7. (My buddy Barstool legend Uncle Buck knew that rule about how the clock didn’t stop because Dorsett went out of bounds backwards, which was news to me.) If anyone still doubts the Best There’s Ever Been is still on his relentless quest for perfection, there’s all the proof you should need.

–Being onto the AFC championship game is all well and good. But the biggest question remains: Is Lane Johnson having fun?