FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — If the New England Patriots make it to an eighth consecutive AFC championship game, they’re going to earn their berth.

In order to get there, they have to get past the Los Angeles Chargers – the worst matchup the Patriots could have gotten for Sunday’s AFC divisional-round game at Gillette Stadium.

Yes, the Kansas City Chiefs are the top-ranked team in the AFC and the Indianapolis Colts are hot, but there is no more complete team in the AFC than the Chargers. They have playmakers on both offense and defense, great special teams and exceptional coaching. They can turn a game’s momentum quickly or pound a team into submission.

They won 12 games in the regular season, tying the Chiefs for most wins in the AFC, one more than New England.

“This is the best team we’ve played all year,” said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in a conference call on Tuesday.

Wednesday, it was Bill Belichick’s turn in his weekly press conference.

“Obviously the Chargers are a really impressive football team,” he began. “I’ve spent a lot of time watching them the last three, four days here, and they’re pretty good at everything. … Well-coached, very disciplined, again, outstanding in every area, and they make big plays, play good defense, got an explosive group, strong in the kicking game. They just challenge you on every play.

“We’re going to have to do a good job all the way around. There’s no one guy who’s going to be able to stop them or block all of them, cover kicks. It’s going to take a team effort. All the units, all the players, coaching staff, everybody.”

Belichick then went on to laud almost every player on the Chargers’ roster – quarterback Philip Rivers, age-defying tight end Antonio Gates, wide receiver Keenan Allen, running back Melvin Gordon, center Mike Pouncey, rookie safety Derwin James and disruptive defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.

On Rivers: “He plays great. Very accurate, obviously a smart guy, offense runs through him, handles things at the line of scrimmage, makes good decisions with the ball, uses everybody.”

On Allen: “He’s one of the best receivers in the league.”

On Gordon: “He’s big, strong, fast, got good vision, he’s hard to tackle, he’s got good patience, uses his blockers well. He’s got good speed, so he can attack from sideline to sideline, but he gets downhill, he’s tough in line, he’s a tough guy to tackle.”

On James: “This guy’s a tremendous football player. He’s good at everything. He usually plays around the line of scrimmage. I think he leads their team in everything.”

And so it went.

Yes, history favors the Patriots. While the Chargers have lost only one road game this year – 35-23 to the Los Angeles Rams on Sept. 23 – New England was the only team to go unbeaten at home in the regular season. And the Patriots have won eight consecutive playoff games at home, the last loss six years ago when Baltimore beat them 28-13 in the AFC championship game. They haven’t lost a divisional-round game since the Jets beat them, 28-21, at Gillette Stadium eight years ago.

And Rivers can’t beat Brady, right?

Rivers is 1-7 in his career against the Patriots, the lone win coming in 2008 when Matt Cassel replaced the injured Brady at quarterback. Advantage New England, for sure.

But the Patriots know what the Chargers have done on the road is special. Including a 23-17 playoff win at Baltimore this past Sunday, Los Angeles is 8-1 on the road, including four games in the Eastern time zone. The Chargers also won a game in London.

“I think it says a lot about the mental toughness of their football team, to be able to go on the road, hostile environments,” said Matthew Slater, the Patriots’ special teams ace. “They’ve been a great road team all year long, so I think that requires a great deal of mental toughness.

“They’ve got the formula – they run the ball, they cover kicks, they stop the run – so they’ve got physical toughness as well. You’ve got to tip your hat to those guys.”

Which is what the Patriots have been doing all week.

Now they have to figure out a way to beat them. It’s not going to be easy.

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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