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Patriots roll through Chargers to reach eighth straight AFC Championship Game

New England Patriots running back Sony Michel (26)

New England Patriots running back Sony Michel (26) runs from Los Angeles Chargers outside linebacker Kyle Emanuel (51) during the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game, Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019, in Foxborough, Mass. Credit: AP/Elise Amendola

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — After a late-season malaise created questions about whether Tom Brady was showing signs of slippage, the Patriots’ 41-year-old quarterback offered his best answer to those doubts Sunday afternoon: not a chance.

Brady came out firing early in the Patriots’ divisional-round game against the Chargers at Gillette Stadium and orchestrated a convincing 41-28 victory to lead New England to a record eighth straight AFC Championship Game appearance.

Brady was firing after the game, too, rejecting suggestions that the Patriots’ dynasty is taking its final breaths.

“It will be a good game, they’re a good team, and we played them earlier this year,” Brady said of facing the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, a rematch of the Patriots’ 43-40 home win in Week 6. “You know I know everyone thinks we [stink] and, you know, can’t win any games, so we’ll see. That’ll be fun.”

Brady will face off against All-Pro quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who has the Chiefs one step away from the Super Bowl in his first season as an NFL starter. The Chiefs crushed the Colts, 31-13, on Saturday to set the stage for next week’s matchup with the Patriots, who have five Super Bowl titles in the Brady-Bill Belichick era. When Brady won the first one 17 years ago, Mahomes was 6.

Brady played as well as he has all season, going 34-for-44 for 343 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. The running game also was at its best, as rookie Sony Michel rushed for 129 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries. Fellow running back James White tied an NFL postseason record with 15 catches for 97 yards.

After Michel’s 1-yard TD run capped a 14-play, 83-yard opening drive for the Patriots, the Chargers’ Philip Rivers hit Keenan Allen with a 43-yard scoring pass. But it was all Patriots after that as they built a 35-7 halftime lead.

“You get to this point, there’s very little margin for error,” Brady said. “You’re going to have to be good in all phases, running it, throwing it, kicking it, playing defense, everything.”

A bye week helped Brady enter refreshed and gave him a chance to recuperate from a knee problem that slowed him midway through the season. He didn’t miss any games this year but struggled through a good portion of the season.

He will need to be at his best against the Chiefs, who secured home-field advantage with a 12-4 record. The Patriots lost their last two AFC Championship Game road appearances, falling to Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos after the 2013 and 2015 seasons.

Brady is anxious to return to Kansas City, where he and the Patriots suffered a crushing 41-14 Monday night loss in 2014. It was a game that invited questions about whether Brady was nearing the end and the Patriots’ dynasty was about to crumble. Since then, the Patriots have made three Super Bowl appearances, winning twice.

“That was a pretty crappy loss that night,” Brady said. “We’ve shown a lot of perseverance, a lot of toughness. This team is showing it. We’ve had some tough losses this year. Just keep fighting. That’s what football is all about. It’s going to be a lot of fun to go back there and play in the championship game and try to advance.”

Brady went 23-for-29 for 233 yards and a touchdown pass to Phil Dorsett in the first half Sunday as the Chargers’ defense was overmatched. L.A.’s

The Chargers’ defensive game plan, which utilized seven defensive backs for most of the game, backfired spectacularly a week after it had worked so well against the Ravens in a 23-17 wild-card victory. Los Angeles successfully contained Baltimore’s rookie quarterback, Lamar Jackson, by putting more speed on the field, but defensive coordinator Gus Bradley didn’t have a match for the Patriots. In fact, Bradley’s frequent use of zone defense played right into Brady’s hands as he continually found open receivers. Julian Edelman was the biggest beneficiary with seven catches for 107 yards in the first half alone.

Brady is 8-0 against Rivers, including 3-0 in the playoffs. The only time the Chargers’ 37-year-old quarterback has beaten the Patriots was in 2008, when Brady was out with an injury.

While Brady was fired up immediately after Sunday’s win with his us-against-the-world remarks to CBS reporter Tracy Wolfson, he subsequently was a bit more subdued, although no less certain in his conviction about his team. And himself.

Asked if he found it sweet to prove people wrong, Brady stared a moment before replying. “I just like winning.”

He added for emphasis, “I just like winning.”

Hopefully Patriots-Chiefs II will be as entertaining as their regular-season meeting:

Week 6

At Foxborough

Patriots 43, Chiefs 40

Tom Brady passed for 340 yards and a touchdown, ran for another score and won his QB duel with Patrick Mahomes when Stephen Gostkowski made a 28-yard FG as time expired. The teams combined for 946 yards total offense. It was the first loss of the season for Kansas City, which came into the Sunday night game 5-0. Mahomes finished 23 of 36 for 352 yards, with three of his four TD passes going to Tyreek Hill. Mahomes, who threw two INTs in the first half, connected with Hill on a 75-yard score that tied the game 40-40 with just over three minutes left. But Brady used a 16-yard pass to James White and a 39-yard completion to Rob Gronkowski to position the Patriots for Gostkowski’s kick.

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