Patriots' victory over Chargers a team effort
One game is all that remains for the ultimate “one game at a time” team.
“It’s been one week at a time for us. It really has,” New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said after his team had defeated the San Diego Chargers, 21-12, in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game at a frigid Gillette Stadium. “I think there will be a time and a place to sit back and reflect. Right now, I’m just proud of our team for winning this game and having a chance to go play for the NFL title.”
In order to remain perfect, the Patriots had to overcome a performance by quarterback Tom Brady that was far from it.
Although Brady served up three interceptions, including one in the end zone, the Patriots improved to 18-0, won the Lamar Hunt Trophy, and advanced to Super Bowl XLII on Feb 3 in Glendale, Ariz.
“We found ways to put the ball in the end zone, got some turnovers from our defense and they played extremely well,” said Brady, who managed to overcome his interceptions to toss touchdown passes of 12 and 6 yards, respectively, to wide receivers Jabar Gaffney and Wes Welker.
“I know the defense wasn’t flat. They played great. Special teams played great. Offensively, we just couldn’t get the drives started and that became a bit of a problem. But we made enough plays in the end.”
Particularly from a defense that kept a Chargers offense, hobbled by the loss of league rushing champion LaDainian Tomlinson (who carried twice for 5 yards, then left with soreness in his hyperextended left knee), out of the end zone, limiting San Diego to four Nate Kaeding field goals in the game and 107 total yards in the second half.
“Everybody’s pulling their weight,” said cornerback Ellis Hobbs, who made eight tackles, intercepted one Philip Rivers pass and broke up another. “It just so happens that we have a juggernaut for an offense. So when they’re not having a good night, now it’s our turn to shine. The stage was set for us and we did our job tonight, but we all did it as a team.”
With Brady nearly as cold as the wind chill (nine degrees) at kickoff, the Patriots’ offense stalled for much of the first quarter.
Cornerback Quentin Jammmer’s interception of a pass down the right sideline intended for Donte’ Stallworth gave San Diego possession at the New England 40 and led to the lone score in the opening quarter, a 26-yard field goal by Kaeding with 2:55 remaining.
Limited to 27 total yards with two punts and the one turnover to that point in time, the Pats’ offense kicked into gear on its fourth possession, driving 65 yards in 10 plays to score on a 1-yard run by Laurence Maroney (25 carries for 122 yards in the game) with 13:48 left in the second quarter.
A pair of 14-yard gains on back-to-back plays keyed the drive – the first a reverse to wide receiver Randy Moss, the second a pass to running back Kevin Faulk (a major contributor with his game-high eight receptions for 82 yards).
The Chargers responded with their second scoring drive (nine plays, 65 yards), resulting in Kaeding’s second field goal, this one a 24-yarder with 9:14 to go in the half.
Completing 5-of-6 passes, Rivers, who playing on two bum knees himself, accounted for 60 of the yards on the drive, 52 of them coming on three completions to his 6-5 wide receiver, Vincent Jackson.
Special teams and defense led to a 12-yard scoring pass from Brady over the middle to Gaffney that pushed the Patriots’ lead to 14-6 with 3:51 to play in the half.
The special teams-defense sequence began when Kelley Washington saved a Chris Hanson punt near the goal line, camping under the ball and batting it back into play to Kyle Eckel, who downed it at the 4. Then, linebacker Mike Vrabel pressured Rivers in the pocket, tripping him up, forcing an ill-advised pass cornerback Asante Samuel intercepted and returned 10 yards to the San Diego 24.
The Chargers closed the half with a kick, Kaeding’s third, a 40-yarder that pulled San Diego to within 14-9 at the break.
A six-play, 43-yard drive led to the field goal, the key play a 26-yard burst by Michael Turner to the New England 31.
The Chargers turned a second Brady interception into Kaeding’s fourth field goal, a 24-yarder that made it 14-12 with 8:36 left in the third quarter. Stallworth got his right hand on the ball, but couldn’t haul in a pass that ricocheted into the hands of cornerback Drayton Florence who returned it 7 yards to the Patriots’ 49.
Kaeding’s fourth field goal would be the Chargers’ final points of the game, however.
“Offense puts people in the seats,” said Hobbs. “Defense wins championships.”
While his second turnover helped put some Chargers’ points on the board, Brady’s next interception took some potential Patriots’ points off the board.
After driving the team to a third-and-goal at the San Diego 2, Brady looked for tight end Benjamin Watson in the back of the end zone, but found ball-hawking cornerback Antonio Cromartie lurking there instead.
“Unfortunately, we left a few points out there on the field,” said Belichick. “They’re a tough group.”
After surrendering one first down, the Patriots’ defense got the offense back on the field for a touchdown that made it a two-possession game.
“When something like that happens, you just want to go out and make a stop,” said Patriots safety Rodney Harrison. “No need to panic. No need to get frustrated.”
Brady made no mistakes on the Patriots’ next possession, however, capping an eight-play, 67-yard drive with a 6-yard scoring toss to Welker on a crossing pattern with 12:15 to play. The big play on that drive was a 20-yard jaunt by Maroney.
The Chargers had only one possession the rest of the way, never seeing the ball after Mike Scifres punted the ball away, as the Patriots controlled the line of scrimmage and took the final 9:13 off the clock.
“One more game,” Samuel said. “Just one more game.”