Column: Patriots put Chargers in their place while taking usual place in eighth consecutive AFC title game

A frustrated Philip Rivers talks with running back Austin Ekeler after a broken play resulted in a sack late in the second quarter in the NFL AFC Divisional Playoff at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Philip Rivers stood on the sideline and resolutely kept his helmet on while the clock ticked down on the Chargers’ playoff hopes, as if being ready to play might extend a season that was about to end with the thud of a thousand deflated dreams.

The Chargers’ quarterback stayed in full gear while the Patriots celebrated their 41-28 rout in the teams’ divisional playoff game and while he congratulated New England quarterback Tom Brady, whose descent from the pedestal of greatness has been widely and falsely reported.

Rivers still wore his helmet when he accepted a pat on the back from Chargers general manager Tom Telesco outside the locker room, then temporarily vanished from view to accept the harsh reality that another season had gone by without him making his first Super Bowl appearance.


This failure was particularly hurtful.

It was amplified by the calendar — Rivers turned 37 last month — and the Chargers’ belief they were better than the discombobulated mess they became on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

He had faced the Patriots twice in playoff games here and lost both, a divisional matchup after the 2006 season and the AFC championship game after the 2007 season. Coming off a 12-4 season in which they excelled on the road and won a wild-card game at Baltimore last week, Rivers and the Chargers believed the outcome could be different this time. That optimism was crushed by the Patriots’ early and relentless offensive push, which turned into a 35-7 lead at halftime.

“I think a lot of us were pretty shocked,” Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa said. “We didn’t expect it to come to this.”

The Chargers fought back in spurts, highlighted by Rivers’ eight-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Gates in the fourth quarter of what might be Gates’ career finale, but the Patriots were too good and the Chargers not nearly good enough on a clear but chilly winter afternoon.

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“It’s tough,” Rivers said later, his helmet finally removed and replaced by a cap with its brim pulled low. “I was excited this week. I was excited to come back here. It was an emotional week a little bit, just being back here in the postseason after being here 11 years ago almost to the day ...

“It is emotional because I think you know how hard it is to get to January 13 and be in a playoff game. You’re talking an eight-, nine-month deal, and to come up short again is tough.”

How they lost should be a lesson they take to heart. Despite their road success this season, their NFL-leading seven Pro Bowl selections and their overall improvement from 9-7 last season, the Chargers have a long way to go if they’re going to win big games like this.

Their improvement isn’t just a matter of personnel, though they need to upgrade their defensive front, offensive line and linebacker corps. It’s a matter of being mentally tough and being at their best when the circumstances are the worst. They couldn’t do that Sunday.

They can’t think making the playoffs and winning one round is good enough, and it sounded as if they’ve grasped at least that much.

“Guys have to know how tough it is to get to today,” said Rivers, who completed 25 of 51 passes for a single playoff game career-best 331 yards and three touchdowns, including a one-yard pass to Virgil Green for his 13th postseason touchdown pass. That tied him with Dan Fouts for the most in Chargers postseason history.

“I think it’s easy in the heat of the moment to say, ‘Hey, we’ll be back and we’ll get it done next year,’ ” Rivers added. “That’s a long way from now, to get to right here.”

They believed they had something special going. And they did, until they met the playoff-tested Patriots.

“It just felt right this year. I felt like we had the right pieces in place to get it done,” Gates said. “But one game definitely doesn’t define who we are as a team. We just chose the wrong day to not play Chargers football.”

If the Chargers had been at their best it might have been a closer fight. However, Brady and the Patriots didn’t let them get anywhere near that level.

“I don’t know if there’s anything he can do now that makes you have any more respect,” Rivers said of Brady, who completed 34 of 44 passes for 343 yards and one touchdown. “Was he rolling at his highest level today? I think we all would agree with that.”

The Chargers all agreed this loss would hurt them for a while, and it should. Let their regrets burn and their guts ache and become sensations they hate too much to allow themselves to experience again.

“I like to feel it. I want to be disgusted about it,” left tackle Russell Okung said. “I want to be angry about it because I know, moving into the offseason, it’s going to push us even more so. And I know a lot of guys felt that way too — that we left a lot out on the field and that we’re capable of so much more.”

So they said. If they’re serious about competing with the best and being the best, they’ll have to prove it.

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen