“Any Squad, Any Place” finally met this squad in this place.
And the New England Patriots, as hardened as Bill Belichick’s scowl by years of playoff success, ended the Chargers season — appropriately and bitterly enough — ASAP.
Sprinting out to a stunning four-touchdown halftime lead, the Patriots turned the final two quarters into garbage time in a 41-28 divisional-round rout Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
“I was in shock,” receiver Keenan Allen said. “I didn’t know what was going on. It just felt like, I don’t know, we couldn’t do anything right. Bad day.”
The Chargers advanced to the step before the AFC title game on the strength of their road success, winning the nine times they played outside of Southern California.
Along the way, they came back from double-digit deficits in Pittsburgh and Kansas City, and won everywhere from Seattle to London. They adopted “Any Squad, Any Place” as their motto of fearlessness.
But a season that continually offered glimpses of possibly being something special ultimately ended up in shreds thanks to the ruthless precision of quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots.
“They jumped out on us,” running back Melvin Gordon said. “And they just kept attacking and kept attacking and kept attacking. It’s hard to win when they’re scoring 35 in the first half.”
Each of New England’s first four possessions resulted in touchdowns against a defense that missed assignments and tackles and could find nothing close to a solution for Brady.
The Chargers’ “7-Eleven” scheme that worked so well in beating Baltimore a week ago in the wild-card round was a disaster against the Patriots’ pounding running game and subsequent play-action passing.
Even when they appeared to stop New England, the Chargers erred to hurt themselves. A pass interference call on Casey Hayward and a holding penalty on Desmond King converted third downs and extended two of those early scoring drives.
When they finally forced the Patriots to punt, King muffed the kick and New England recovered to set up a fifth touchdown before halftime.
“It was a shock, totally unexpected,” defensive lineman Isaac Rochell said. “You’re never planning, in any situation, to go into halftime down 28.”
The Chargers trailed 35-7 when they retreated to the visitors locker room, where coach Anthony Lynn told them to forget the scoreboard and play for pride and one another.
This franchise hadn’t given up that many points in a first half in more than 30 years. The prospect of coming back in this setting against this opponent seemed absurd, even to a group that had come back so often.
“Once it got to 35-7, I was like, ‘We’re playing the Patriots now,’ ” Allen said. “You gotta get real at some point. We’re playing the Patriots. This ain’t nobody else.”
The deficit reached 38-7 midway through the third quarter before the Chargers scored three touchdowns to at least bring respectability to the scoreboard. It was far too late to salvage anything else.
Brady had 343 yards passing as New England had a 100-yard rusher (Sony Michel) and a 100-yard receiver (Julian Edelman), and a running back with 15 receptions (James White), which tied an NFL playoff record.
Behind so much so soon, the Chargers gave up trying to run and finished with only 19 yards on the ground. The Patriots had a time-of-possession advantage of nearly 17 minutes.
“I felt like I was helpless,” said Gordon, who carried nine times for 15 yards. “We can’t be down four scores and still trying to run. It don’t work like that. It sucks, man. It sucks being taken out of the game like that. But what can you do?”
Rivers, who fell to 0-8 against Brady, was repeatedly pressured and hit, New England flustering the veteran with steady pressure from the opening snap.
By the end, Rivers was limping around and fuming at anyone close enough to hear him. He finished 25 for 51 for 331 yards and three touchdowns, although history won’t remember this game for those numbers.
Instead, it will be the 35-7 deficit that turned a 60-minute game into one that was over after only 30, an AFC final-four matchup that couldn’t have been more emphatic as a finale.
“To not even have a fighting chance at the end, it sucks,” defensive end Joey Bosa said. “I’m sure it will linger into next year. We’ll still have a salty taste in our mouths. We’ll remember losing and what it takes to truly win, because this wasn’t it.”
The Chargers will remember earning a trip to New England to face a Patriots team now heading to its eighth consecutive conference title game and trying to win its third Super Bowl in five years.
And they’ll remember leaving Foxborough feeling a lot like so many teams that came before them.