By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 21, 2008
FOXBOROUGH, Mass., Jan. 20 -- The San Diego Chargers gave another gritty effort, and a history-changing win over the New England Patriots in Sunday's AFC title game at Gillette Stadium was theirs for the taking. They intercepted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady three times and made wide receiver Randy Moss a nonfactor.
But the Chargers didn't quite have another miracle in them. They got field goals when touchdowns were needed, and the Patriots escaped, 21-12, to take their 18-0 record into Super Bowl XLII.
"It's great to see in the biggest game of the year," said Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, "that we come up and force them to kick field goals. . . . That's our defense. Our defense always does what we need to do to win."
Fellow linebacker Mike Vrabel said the defense took its turn to carry the offense and Brady to a victory for a change.
"All year, we were either giving up touchdowns or playing great," Vrabel said. "There was no in-between. I think tonight you saw the great. . . . It was probably our turn to win a game. That was the Patriots of old, where you would just kind of hang around and make the plays when they counted."
The Patriots will try to join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only undefeated teams in NFL history. But on this day, they were fortunate.
"We had some remarkable efforts," Chargers Coach Norv Turner said, "some guys laying it on the line when they probably shouldn't have been out there. . . . We had opportunities and ended up having to kick field goals."
Brady threw two touchdown passes, including a fourth-quarter strike to wide receiver Wes Welker that finally gave the Patriots some breathing room. Tailback Laurence Maroney ran for 122 yards and a touchdown.
But the Patriots were vulnerable. Moss had his second straight one-catch game and Brady's uncharacteristically sloppy performance included two interceptions that handed the Chargers field goals and another that perhaps cost the Patriots a touchdown.
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, playing with a sprained knee ligament that left his status in doubt until early Sunday, toughed it out for 211 passing yards, but also threw two interceptions.
Tight end Antonio Gates played with a sprained toe and had only two catches. Tailback LaDainian Tomlinson started the game despite an injured left knee but lasted only one series plus part of another. He finished with five yards on two carries.
"He tried to go," Turner said. "He just couldn't go."
The Chargers had finished their win in Indianapolis a week before with Rivers and Tomlinson on the bench and Gates contributing little. This time, they moved the ball well enough to win again. Michael Turner ran for 65 yards on 17 carries in place of Tomlinson and wide receivers Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson totaled 13 catches for 183 yards. But the Chargers scored on four field goals by kicker Nate Kaeding.
Brady was coming off a 26-for-28 passing performance in the Patriots' second-round triumph here over Jacksonville, setting the single-game NFL postseason record for throwing accuracy. But the conditions for this game were a hindrance to the Patriots' pass-first offense.
It wasn't the cold; it was the wind, which was blowing at 17 mph and gusting to 22 mph.
Wind is the Patriots' enemy, and it showed early in the game. Brady was off. One third-down throw toward Welker, the sort of play that's usually automatic for the Patriots, was low and wide. Another pass sailed high over Moss's head.
"I don't think we executed as well as we're capable," Brady said. "But we got the win. We were able to put together some important drives. . . . It's nice to know you can win the close ones. It's nice to know you can win the ones when you face some adversity, and you've got to be mentally tough."
The Patriots punted the first two times they had the ball. On their third possession, Brady tried to get a throw to wide receiver Donte' Stallworth along the sideline. But the pass was underthrown, and cornerback Quentin Jammer made a leaping interception.
The Chargers took over at the Patriots 40-yard line but could manage only three points. They got to the 8, but Rivers's third-down pass to Chambers was a bit high, and the wide receiver landed with one foot out of bounds in the back of the end zone for an incompletion. Kaeding connected from 26 yards.
There was a swift reply from the Patriots on their fourth drive. They found a way to get the ball to Moss, who had one catch in the Jaguars game and spent the week defending himself against a battery allegation by a Florida woman.
Taken out of the passing game again, Moss ran the ball for 14 yards on an end-around, and the Patriots kept going for Maroney's one-yard touchdown plunge three plays into the second quarter.
The Chargers moved to the Patriots 8 but had to settle for another Kaeding field goal, a 23-yard-der. From there, Rivers unraveled.
The Patriots downed a punt at the Chargers 4. On second down from the 17, Vrabel rushed Rivers and missed him. He stuck out his leg and tripped the quarterback, but the would-be penalty went uncalled by the officials.
Rivers stumbled and made an ill-advised throw into traffic in Chambers's direction, and cornerback Asante Samuel made the interception. That gave the Patriots the ball at the Chargers 24, and they cashed in on Brady's 12-yard touchdown pass to wideout Jabar Gaffney.
Rivers underthrew a deep pass toward Chambers for another interception, this one by cornerback Ellis Hobbs, the next time the Chargers had the ball. But they forced a punt and drew to 14-9 on Kaeding's 40-yarder in the final seconds of the first half.
Brady threw a tipped-ball interception in the opening moments of the second half, and the Chargers reached the New England 4. But Turner was dumped for a two-yard loss by linebacker Junior Seau on a third-and-one run, and yet another field goal made it 14-12.
The Patriots moved to the San Diego 2, but Brady forced a third-down throw into heavy traffic and had it grabbed by cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who led the league with 10 interceptions during the regular season.
No matter. The Patriots got the ball back and moved down the field relentlessly, relying on the running of Maroney. On second down from the 6, Brady was unerring this time and zipped a throw to Welker for the touchdown. Norv Turner chose to punt on fourth and 10 from the Patriots 36 with just more than nine minutes remaining, and the Chargers didn't get the ball back.
"The players, they just did an awesome job," Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said. "They did all year. They stepped up and made the plays, just like they did all year."