Perhaps one day we'll learn. It's been popular to discount the Patriots and their 41-year-old quarterback because 41-year-old quarterbacks aren't supposed to last one game, let alone 267 regular-season starts and another 38 starts in the postseason, all while in the conversation as one of the league's best players. But Tom Brady isn't your typical middle-aged man. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer who, along with his Patriots teammates, has had two weeks to prepare for the Los Angeles Chargers.

And has happened the seven previous times Philip Rivers faced off against the Brady, the Chargers went home losers, and this time the game was over midway through the second quarter. Los Angeles stuck around for the final 30 minutes, and the final score was 41-28.

Fear the Patriots

It's easy to overlook just how good the Patriots have been during the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era. Since 2001, the team has won at least 10 games 17 times, made the playoffs on 16 other occasions, won the AFC East 10 straight times and are headed to their ninth conference championship game. (And in case you've forgotten, they've won five Super Bowl titles in that time.)

So this shouldn't be any real surprise, even with Rob Gronkowski's diminishing skills, the loss of Josh Gordon late in the regular season, or a replacement-level defense that has been exposed at times. It doesn't help that the rest of the division -- the Bills, Dolphins and Jets -- has been mostly invisible but credit the Patriots for taking advantage of their situation; no other team this century has sustained the same success.

On Sunday, the Pats got rolling early, going 83 yards on 14 plays on the first drive of the afternoon. Brady targeted three different receivers -- including James White who had five receptions for 45 yards -- and was a tidy 7 of 8 for 60 yards. Rookie Sony Michel punched in the touchdown, his first of three in the first half.

The Pats kept things rolling on their next drive, which leaned heavily on the running game and opened things up for the play-action game, and in a recurring theme, the Chargers' defense had no answers. And just like the first possession, this one ends with Michel in the end zone.

Michel, the team's first-round pick, had nine carries for 43 yards.

The Chargers, who looked out of sorts from the start, promptly went three-and-out. The Patriots, who were on point from their first series, took advantage ... again. This time, it was Phillip Dorsett who scored after a blown coverage:

L.A. managed a first down but nothing more on its next series and, as you can probably surmise, New England got right back to work. Which brings us to the three big plays that led to the Pats' fourth first-half touchdown:

* 25-yard pass to White:

* 40-yard romp by Michel:

* And, two plays, later, Rex Burkhead sashays into the end zone:

And while Gronkowski appears to be a shell of himself as a playmaking tight end, pay special attention to how he gets after it as a blocker on Burkhead's touchdown.

Fun fact if you're not a Chargers fan: All four touchdowns were scored by players without a postseason touchdown coming into the game.

Fun fact if you're not a Chargers fan, II: The Patriots had 16 first downs on 31 snaps midway through second quarter.

The Chargers claimed a moral victory on the Pats' next possession, forcing a three-and-out and their first punt of the day. But instead of Rivers and the offense taking the field, Desmond King, one of the best returners in the league, did this:

It goes without saying but we'll do it anyway: You're not beating the Patriots getting outclassed in every phase. Which brings us to the three big plays that led to New England's fifth first-half touchdown:

  • 25-yard pass to White:
  • 40-yard romp by Michel:
  • And, two plays, later, Rex Burkhead sashays into the end zone:

And while Gronkowski appears to be a shell of himself as a playmaking tight end, pay special attention to how he gets after it as a blocker on Burkhead's touchdown.

This was just the first half. And the 35-7 score was the Patriots' largest first-half playoff lead since 2011, when they were up on Tim Tebow and the Broncos by the same score.

The Patriots were less explosive over the final 30 minutes but at no point did it feel like the Chargers ever had any momentum; the best L.A. could do was cut the lead to 19 points early in the fourth quarter, and that was before Gilmore picked Rivers off with 4:12 to go.

Rivers led another drive that cut the lead to 13 but with less than a minute on the clock, Brady took two knees and that was that. And that's what great football teams do. They beat bad teams badly and more times than not, beat evenly matched opponents -- unless it's a home game, in which case the Pats are as close to a sure bet as you can get. Yes, it feels like a foregone conclusion at this point -- but it shouldn't; what New England continues to do is one of the most amazing accomplishments in sports.

What happened to the Chargers?

There are any number of theories for what transpired in Gillette Stadium. We can start with the theory tackle Russell Okung floated last week.

"Roger Goodell doesn't want us to come home," he said after his team's 23-17 win over the Ravens. "That's all I can say."

Okung cited phantom penalty flags against the Chargers as proof the league didn't want L.A. hosting the AFC Championship Game. Of course, he made that point before the Chiefs demolished the Colts so it's moot now. Just like the Chargers. Moving on ...

The Chargers came out flat-footed against the Patriots and never ever recovered. Playing a 10 a.m. game in back-to-back weeks is perhaps to blame. Or maybe traveling twice from L.A. to the east coast finally caught up with them.

Or maybe it as the lack of depth at linebacker; the Chargers played with six and seven defensive backs, an effective strategy against the Ravens but less so against one of the league's most accurate quarterbacks.

Jets safety Jamal Adams explained why this plan failed for the Chargers in New England:

There's more evidence for why this wasn't ideal:

The Patriots were playing old-school, "line 'em up and let's see what happens" smash-mouth football. It sounds like one huge cliche but there's a lot of truth to the game plan too. And the Chargers couldn't adjust, and were helpless to do anything about it.

Also not helping: L.A. is a zone-based defense. That's not a problem when your'e facing Lamar Jackson, who completed 58 percent of his passes in 2018. It's something else entirely when you're facing Brady, who regularly eviscerates zone schemes. Just ask the Steelers, who have only had success against Brady when they get physical with New England's receivers, disrupt the timing of their routes, and occasionally pressures the quarterback.

The Chargers did none of those things, the game got out of hand early, and all that was left to talk about was how many points the Patriots and Chiefs will score next week.

On offense, the Patriots routinely rushed one more than the Chargers could block, Rivers was under pressure on virtually every snap, and the running game was nonexistent.

We should provide at least one Chargers' highlight and here it is: Midway through the first quarter and trailing by only a touchdown, Keenan Allen smokes Stephon Gilmore for one of the easiest touchdowns of his career.

Los Angeles scored again in the second half but the stakes were so low by that point that it felt like a preseason game. It was another good season for the Chargers, and another season that ends with Rivers wondering if he's ever going to make it to a Super Bowl.

Next up

The Patriots travel to Kansas City next Sunday to face the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. Kickoff is at 6:40 p.m. ET on CBS (stream on CBS All Access) and the winner will head to Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII. If history is any guide, Brady's a good bet to represent the conference in the title game.