FOXBORO – The Chargers started complaining when they got off the buses at Gillette Stadium on Sunday morning. And they never … ever … stopped.
A team whose 2018 trademark was resilience, a team that was 8-1 on the road coming into the AFC Divisional Playoffs.
A team that won at Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Baltimore. A team that had consecutive road games at Cleveland, in London against the Titans, at Oakland and at Seattle and won them all.
This vagabond team San Diego didn’t want and L.A. was mostly indifferent to, this team that humbly played its home games in a soccer stadium and lost just four games while never getting blown out.
By the end of the day this team was Jets West, a puddle of incompetency and resigned “we’ll get ‘em next year” promises.
The first indicator the Chargers resilience had lost its resilience? About 11 a.m.
When SUVs carrying the Chargers owners forced the team buses to idle in the Gillette Stadium parking lot, players and coaches on the buses overheated. They had no idea why they waited. Just that the Patriots were probably behind it.
And so began an epic day of Chargers rock-kicking. In the cold and in the spotlight, the 2018 Chargers went from poised to a puddle. They played like a West Coast version of the Jets. They came undone.
At the epicenter of the meltdown was the Chargers unquestioned leader, Philip Rivers.
A very good quarterback who’s had an outstanding career, Rivers is a wide-eyed, hand-waving delight to talk to and an upstanding family man.
But once the stuff started hitting the fan early in the second quarter, Rivers sprayed curse-free bile in every direction after nearly every snap. Teammates. Refs. Patriots. The Patriots sidelines. His own sidelines.
Competitiveness is terrific. Going to the whip has its benefits IF it’s done in the name of marshaling attention and getting a better effort.
But the 37-year-old Rivers seemed like he was picking up where the 25-year-old Rivers left off in the 2006 playoffs – wild-eyed, raging and a guy whose frustration was doing more harm than good.
The juncture when Rivers’ head started doing 360s came with the Patriots leading 21-7. The previous drive ended with Rivers being chased out of bounds by Dont'a Hightower. He was fumed.
Then came a third-and-2 with 10:55 left in the half. Rivers let the play clock run down, took the snap and threw just as officials whistled the play dead and Hightower smashed him in the ribs. Rivers raged. The Chargers took a 5-yard penalty.
Two plays later, Rivers was again flushed, this time by Trey Flowers. Flowers put his hand on Rivers' back to gain balance as Rivers threw the ball away. Rivers flailed at Flowers like he was being attacked by a bird.
On the next hurried throwaway to end that drive, Rivers walked toward the Patriots sideline and screamed at nobody in particular before returning to his bench.
On Rivers’ final incompletion of the half, he wanted a flag for pass interference. He didn’t get it. So he walked down the sideline from his own 25 to the Patriots' 30 upbraiding the side judge as the Chargers got ready to punt.
How much did Rivers’ first-half tongue-lashings help?
So much that, on the first drive of the second half, Chargers center Mike Pouncey allowed Patriots defensive tackle Adam Butler to run right past him and whack Rivers. In other words, not a bit.
I asked Rivers after the game whether his competitiveness became frustration.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “One thing I know … we’re never going to quit. I don’t care what the score is, we’re going to play until that last second ticks to zero. So I think that was it. Maybe there’s a little more emotion coming out at the end because you just hate that it’s over. …
“That’s part of it, that’s the way I play my best. In many ways, that wasn’t my best today. Obviously when you don’t score more points than the other team, you’re not. But we’re going to fight until the end and I thought at least we can say we did that.”
Then it would be unfair, I asked, to say he hurt his team with a loss of composure.
“You can decide whether that’s unfair or not,” he said. “I know that’s not the case in any – not at all.”
While answering another question during his press conference, Rivers circled back.
“I do want to go back to your question about the composure because there was never a lack of composure,” he said. “I think sometimes my demonstrative movements may look that way but I was just poised as could be. The whole time. … If you’ve watched me for 210 games, as you’d see for all 210, it’s served me well for the most part.”
It didn’t seem to on Sunday, but he’d know better than me, I suppose. And so would his coaches and teammates.
What the Chargers frustration really betrayed was a sense that they were screwed.
A sense that they’d gotten the Patriots team that they feared they would get. The one that came in healthy and with a pristine game plan designed to feast on the spots that it always does when it faces this Cover-3 defense the Chargers use and the Falcons and Seahawks also use. It was something we started talking about last Sunday when the Chargers beat the Ravens. And it held true in this game. The Chargers had no answer for the short passing game that utilized James White and Julian Edelman. The ball came out too fast for them to bother Tom Brady. And their multiple-DB defense was ripe to be run over by the Patriots running game.
It all came to fruition much to the Chargers frustration. Meanwhile, Rivers couldn’t find anyone to throw to as the Patriots put together their best defensive performance of the season with pressure coming from every angle.
By the time it was done, the Chargers had given up a touchdown when they had 10 men on the field, taken two delay of game penalties, burned two timeouts to avoid two more delay of game penalties, had their punter screaming at the Patriots sidelines, muffed a punt that led to a touchdown and had social media rallying to their cause because the Patriots were throwing the ball in the fourth quarter and Tom Brady was still in.
Around here, we’ve been looking for cracks in the Patriots foundation and moving the hands on their Doomsday Clock for over a year. A fool’s errand?
On this Sunday, it looked like it. The aura, mystique and maddening efficiency of the Patriots was alive and well.
Can it carry them through another AFC Conference Championship and into another Super Bowl? We’ll know in a week.
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