By Michael Wilbon
Monday, January 21, 2008
For once, the New England Patriots didn't act as if they'd just arrived at the dentist's office. Tom Brady smiled. Bill Belichick even managed to talk in complete sentences. Some might have accused him of being downright engaging. From locker to locker, the men who make up the 18-0 Patriots acknowledged that, finally, they are on the verge of something previously unthinkable. Their expression of joy shouldn't be confused with satisfaction, what with a Super Bowl date standing between them and perfection. But it wasn't difficult to identify the winning team after New England's 21-12 victory over San Diego in the AFC championship game Sunday.
"I can't tell you how good it is to come in here after that game," Belichick said. He had every reason to be happy, specifically with his defense for holding the Chargers without a touchdown, even though San Diego moved inside the Patriots 10-yard line on three occasions and even though Tom Brady threw three interceptions on what amounted to a fairly lousy day for him. Four field goals were all San Diego could manage, and it certainly didn't help the Chargers that LaDainian Tomlinson, their record-setting running back and wrecker of defenses, carried the ball only two times and caught just one pass because of a knee injury.
Countless times over three championship seasons, Golden Boy Brady has saved the day with last-second touchdown passes and improbable drives to come from behind and win. But the script was flipped here in the AFC title game. It was the defense that saved Brady, whose 22-for-33 performance with two touchdowns wasn't nearly as impressive as the numbers might sound. "That's why they call it a team," Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said. "Tom can't go out and pass for 400 yards and three touchdowns every week. He doesn't need to."
Linebacker Tedy Bruschi, in the middle of those defensive plays as usual, said: "It was crucial that we had those red-zone stops. When you hug your coach after you've won the AFC championship and the first thing he says is, 'Great job in the red area,' you know it was important. It's great to see in the biggest game of the year that we come up and force them to kick field goals."
It wasn't much artistically, as playoff games go. Philip Rivers, playing despite a partially torn knee ligament, barely completed 50 percent of his passes (19 of 37) and threw two interceptions. Brady threw three picks and was tossing it all over the yard early. As championship weekend went, Patriots vs. Chargers definitely had the JV weather. It was 23 degrees at kickoff at Gillette Stadium, but the wind-chill made it feel like nine degrees. As bad as that might sound, it felt 32 degrees colder in Green Bay (minus-23 wind chill) when the Packers and Giants kicked off. The New England conditions were ideal, relatively speaking.
It wasn't ideal for the Chargers to play a game of such importance without Tomlinson, who might have turned at least a couple of those trips inside the Patriots 10 into touchdowns. Rivers was gimpy, Tomlinson essentially didn't play. Tight end Antonio Gates was in and out of the lineup. It's why Norv Turner, even in defeat, repeatedly praised his players for "laying it on the line when [some of them] probably shouldn't have been out there on the field. I can't say enough about Phil Rivers. I can't ask for more than what he gave. He gave us a chance to win."
The game hinged on several critical plays on which the Patriots' defense simply managed to stop San Diego's offense, and none was bigger than that by Junior Seau, who turned 39 on Saturday and is in his 18th NFL season. He tackled San Diego's Michael Turner in the open field near the goal line on third and one with the Chargers threatening to take the lead. Seau's play forced another field goal, San Diego's final of the day, and kept the Patriots ahead 14-12.
The irony was inescapable. Seau spent his first 13 seasons with the Chargers, trying in vain to win the Super Bowl. Now here he was, stopping the Chargers from taking the lead in their pursuit to reach the Super Bowl without him. Seau even said afterward: "I am always a Charger. That's my home. I took the scenic route to get here. But we played and experienced it together; that's how I look at it."
Harrison, 35, looked around at some of his defensive teammates, then turned to a reporter and said, "Not bad for a bunch of old guys." He was referring, obviously, to Seau, 34-year-old linebacker Bruschi, 33-year-old linebacker Larry Izzo, 32-year-old linebacker Mike Vrabel, and himself. "It never gets old," Harrison said of getting to the Super Bowl. "We do, but it doesn't."
Someone asked Harrison if he would allow himself to enjoy the victory a full 24 hours, a temptation the Patriots surely didn't give into through the first 17 victories of the season. "I might enjoy this until Thursday," Harrison said. "Look, it's a tremendous ride we're on right now. It never gets old."
Kevin Faulk, the all-purpose back who made a fabulous third-and-11 reception that allowed the Patriots to play keep away down the stretch, couldn't maintain the stoic facade that has served his team so well this season. "It doesn't matter how many times you've been there or what you've done over your career," he said. "When that moment comes, you can't hold your emotions. You can't hide them. I would say we've been holding them [back] because we've been playing to win games, to get to this point right now. And at this point, right now, the emotions are high."