In the Playoffs, Facing New England Is Never Pretty
Even when Tom Brady and the New England Patriots trailed by 11, they acted as though they didn't quite trust the pretty colors of the San Diego Chargers' uniforms. Could a team that wears canary yellow and gentle shades of blue, in a stadium that serves merlot at the concessions, really beat them in the playoffs?
Brady and the Patriots will make you prove it, every time. All during the regular season and for much of the game, the Chargers played like the best team in the NFL. They had that glittering 14-2 record. They had the league's most valuable player, LaDainian Tomlinson, in the backfield. And they had the home-field advantage and were unbeaten in Qualcomm Stadium. When the Patriots forced them to ratify all of those exquisite assets and numbers, however, they couldn't do it.
What happened here, after all of the bedlam, the combined seven turnovers and the long strikes and the big stops, was that the better-looking team lost, 24-21. Which tends to happen to those spangled, elegant organizations that have the ill luck to be favored over the Patriots in the postseason. Throughout the afternoon, aided by a steady roar from a record crowd of 68,810 that sounded like something that came from the back of a jet plane, the Chargers seemed to be irrefutably superior. They moved the ball more easily on offense, as Tomlinson gained 123 yards and scored twice, and they all but stuffed the Patriots on defense, holding them to just 51 yards rushing while forcing three interceptions from Brady.
The problem was that the Chargers were only the best team of the regular season -- and this was the playoffs. And the Patriots are surely the greatest team of their era at winning the games that count. Brady and Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, the constants in their remarkable franchise, are 12-1 in the postseason. Beating them in January is like trying to kill Rasputin. You better poison them, shoot them, stab them and then wrap them in chains and throw them in a river. Even then, you better take their pulse and make sure that they're really, really dead.
"It doesn't really matter in our eyes. We come in and we know we are the ones who are going to do it," said Patriots running back Kevin Faulk.
The Chargers are merely the latest team to learn this lesson the hard way. The very worst thing you can do is to taunt the Patriots with a point spread and an MVP. They'll break the heart of the best player in the league every time with their combination of dull toughness, substance and belief. Tomlinson has everything in the world he could want, except a game to play next week. He's the league's scoring leader, rushing leader, total yardage leader, most valuable player and offensive player of the year. And he's out. It's the same thing the Patriots did to Kurt Warner in the 2001 Super Bowl, and to Steve McNair and Peyton Manning in the postseason in 2003.
"They buckled down in certain situations and stopped us," Tomlinson said, sounding just sort of baffled. "It was like they had a mindset that they were just going to stop us in certain situations."
The Patriots were down 21-13 with eight minutes left, and that was exactly when you began to sense that they might do it again. They kept chipping away at the situation, charging around the field trying to make something happen. When some of the Chargers began to limp ever so slightly, you knew the momentum was swinging.
The Chargers were just too profligate, too wasteful with their many opportunities to put the game away. Of their 14 drives, 10 were in New England territory. And yet they gave up four turnovers of their own, they dropped balls and committed six momentum-killing penalties. With 6 minutes 25 seconds left in the game, Marlon McCree had another Brady interception and a probable victory in his hands -- and fumbled it, stripped by Troy Brown. Instead, the Patriots had a first and 10 at the San Diego 32, and four plays later, Brady hit Reche Caldwell with a 4-yard scoring pass, and Faulk made the two-point conversion to tie it.
"I think the most important thing is, we have a bunch of mentally tough guys in here who don't give up, regardless of the situation," New England defensive back Ray Mickens said. "I think that shows today, that we didn't get down on ourselves just because we were down by 11 points, but just kept hammering away and being mentally tough."
The last thing you want to give Brady in the final minutes of a playoff game is hope. All game long he had struggled. His range was off, he underthrew and overthrew, he was hurried and sacked. But after each failed drive or turnover, he would return to his sideline and study his charts, imperturbable.
"You know it's just not letting anything get to you," Brady said. "It's staying focused no matter what's swirling around you. Just continuing to mentally fight through whatever obstacles there might be."
The final drive was the sort we've seen before: Brady in the pocket, lanky and calm, that half growth of beard barely visible inside his helmet, finding receivers all over the field when they hadn't been open all game. Brady's passes, so wobbly and directionless earlier in the game, suddenly had zing. The game-breaker was the 49-yarder to Caldwell down the sideline for a first down at the San Diego 17 with 2:31 to play. The ball flew through the air like it was on a rope between the two men, and Caldwell skittered out of bounds at the Chargers 17. Four plays later, Stephen Gostkowski kicked the game-winning field goal.
Afterward, San Diego Coach Marty Schottenheimer wore a vaguely uncomprehending expression. He didn't quite understand what had happened. He thought the Chargers just came up a little short. "We ran out of time, is what happened," Schottenheimer said. "We ran out of time."
No. They ran into the Patriots.