FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It has to end sometime.
The Patriots’ dominance of the NFL has been one of the most long-lasting periods of excellence in pro sports history, a legacy that includes eight Super Bowl appearances, five championships and 18 years’ worth of AFC East supremacy. With coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady carving out their Hall of Fame legacies, New England’s run is unrivaled in NFL annals and among the most impressive sports dynasties of all.
But it can’t go on forever.
The only question is when it will be over.
With the seemingly indestructible Brady showing some signs of slippage during the regular season, perhaps it will be sooner rather than later. Perhaps the Patriots will succumb to the resurgent Chargers in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, where the home team has been nearly unbeatable in January.
Or perhaps the run will continue with another trip back to the Super Bowl after last year’s near-win against the Eagles in Super Bowl LII.
Either way, Belichick is treating this game as he has treated all that have come before — with tremendous respect, almost reverence for the opponent.
“It’s a big challenge, obviously,” he said. “Getting ready for the Chargers — a good football team, great football team. A lot of work to do.”
In Belichick’s mind, there’s always a lot of work to do. A coach who has dominated for so long has done so because of pregame preparation and intense study of the opponent’s tendencies. This one will be no exception as he attempts to beat a Chargers team that showed plenty of resiliency in a 23-17 win over the Ravens last Sunday in an AFC wild-card game in Baltimore.
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, 37, led five scoring drives against the Ravens’ top-ranked defense, and Los Angeles' defense used seven defensive backs through most of the game to contend with Ravens rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson.
“Fired up to be in the final eight and to have a chance,” Rivers said. “I think we talk about that every year that you're not in. You're always disappointed you didn’t even give yourself a chance, give our team a chance. Certainly fired up to have a shot. The fact that it is against this franchise and this team and obviously it's unbelievable what they’ve done and what they’ve sustained over many, many, many years. It's going to be a heck of a challenge but certainly excited to have the opportunity to come there and have another shot at them."
Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who held the same position with Seattle before becoming head coach of the Jaguars, provided a brilliant blueprint for conquering the Ravens’ scrambling quarterback and earning a shot at the Patriots.
Bradley no doubt will have to come up with a similarly creative plan against Brady, who is not only the most accomplished quarterback in NFL history but arguably the smartest. Brady has solved even the most complicated defenses over the years, although there were times during the regular season that made you wonder if he’s starting to look his age.
The 41-year-old quarterback finished with impressive numbers — 4,355 passing yards, 29 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. But there was a stretch of games in which he struggled. In an eight-game span from midway through the season until the final two games, Brady had only nine touchdown passes and four interceptions. The Patriots went 5-3 in that time — losing back-to-back road games in Miami and Pittsburgh — and missed out on a chance to get the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC.
Some of the struggles were understandable. The Patriots’ offense went through some significant changes as they dealt with the loss to suspension of wide receiver Josh Gordon and had to go with makeshift lineup changes at receiver and running back. Those changes likely contributed to that stretch of relative inefficiency for Brady.
But with two victories to end the season, the Patriots assured themselves of a first-round bye and at least one playoff home game. That could be enough to eventually earn a ninth trip to the Super Bowl.
But it also might be a sign of legitimate cracks that simply can’t be ignored. Might Brady’s age represent one of those cracks?
Belichick would like to believe that no matter how old Brady is, there’s still enough left for another run.
“I think when you get out on the field, football is football,” the 66-year-old Belichick said when asked about the age gap between Brady and the rest of his teammates. “I’ve dealt with the same thing. When you call a play, I don’t think anybody looks at how old somebody is. Everybody has an assignment, a job to do. Hopefully you can go out there and do it well and help your team win. Tom obviously does a tremendous job with that.”
Regardless of the circumstances, Brady is ready.
"This is the time of year we've got to go out and be at our best," he said. "It’s a production-based league, and regardless of what’s happened to this point, it’s about winning this game."
Brady vs. Rivers
Tom Brady's Patriots and Philip Rivers' Chargers have met seven times, including twice in the playoffs. Every time, Brady and New England have prevailed. A look at their head-to-head stats.
5 regular-season matchups
Brady: 5-0, 135-for-194, 1,511 yards, 10 TDs, 2 INTs
Rivers: 0-5, 119-for-183, 1,294 yards, 7 TDs, 7 INTs
2 playoff matchups
Brady: 2-0, 49-for-84, 489 yards, 4 TDs, 6 INTs
Rivers: 0-2, 33-for-69, 441 yards, 0 TDs, 3 INTs