With yesterday’s hard fought 21-12 win over the San Diego Chargers at Gillette Stadium, the AFC Champion New England Patriots have now earned a trip to four of the last seven Super Bowls. Perhaps almost as impressively, New England’s appearance in the AFC Championship game was their fifth in the last seven years, and they’ve won all but one of them.
Their lone AFC Championship loss in that span was to the Indianapolis Colts last year, and it left a bitter taste in the mouth of every Patriot in the RCA Dome that fateful day in January 2007. They had an 18-point lead at one point and it was looking like the Patriots were going to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in six years (and likely defeat the Chicago Bears). But a combination of un-Patriot-like actions, including poor, seemingly worn out defense, late-game penalties and a Brady interception in the game’s final drive led to their demise — and to Peyton Manning’s first Super Bowl ring.
It was that loss, not “Spygate” as many in the mainstream sports world (including ESPN) have said that has made the Patriots as determined as ever to play football at their very best level and get back to the Super Bowl. And with a 9-point victory over the Chargers, the Patriots did what they could not do a year ago at this time: play disciplined football, get a lead, and hold onto it until the clock runs out.
The now 18-0 Patriots proved yet again they can win any way possible and why they are on their way to becoming one of the greatest NFL teams ever. With Randy Moss
relegated to a being decoy (and making just one catch) for a second straight game and Brady throwing 3 INTs for the first time since his team knocked the Chargers out of the playoffs in last year’s divisional round, a short passing game, a strong running game and a trademark bend-but-not-break defense was how the Patriots won. (This win also marks the third game in a row in just over a year that the Patriots have beaten the Bolts.)
For the second time in this playoff run, New England outran one of the best rushing
teams in the NFL. Second-year RB Laurence Maroney cut-and-ran for over 100 yards for the second straight week. Clearing the way for Maroney’s strong running performance was the offensive line, led by Pro Bowlers Matt Light and Logan Mankins and excellent blockers like TE Kyle Brady.
New England’s 21 points didn’t come easy though, as Brady got some pressure from SD’s defense, and his wide receivers were tightly covered by the San Diego secondary all day long, not wanting to get beat down the field. Emerging star corner back Antonio Cromartie, Quentin Jammer, and DE Igor Olshansky were among the reasons the Patriots offense got frustrated for much of the game. But Brady stayed cool in the freezing weather in Foxborough, Massachusetts and lead the Pats to three TD drives (2 passing, one running TD by Maroney).
Besides Maroney, the unsung hero of this game on the offensive side was long-time Patriot Kevin Faulk, who has split time between running and receiving for years. Never a starting RB due to his tendency to fumble the ball — though not this season — he was always been reliable catching the ball and is the team’s all-time leader in receptions by a running back. On Sunday, he led the team with 8 catches for 82 yards. Along with Maroney’s runs, it was Faulk’s great hands and crucial third-down catches that kept the ball in Patriot hands in a 15-play drive that sucked up the last nine minutes of the game, not even giving the Chargers a chance to make a late-game comeback.
Everyone knows about the Patriots’ highly potent offense, but they also have a top five defense, and it showed. San Diego had three red zone opportunities to score touchdowns in this game, but only came away with three chip shot field goals. New England’s defense either stuffed the run or knocked down QB Phillip Rivers’s passes once SD got inside the 10-yard line. Veterans like Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour and former Charger Junior Seau were major contributors to SD’s touchdown-less drives.
In a close game such as this, turnovers can be costly, but it’s what you do with them that matters. Brady had 3 INTs, one of which was a tipped ball, but San Diego only turned them into two field goals. The Patriots, by contrast intercepted Rivers twice and used Asante Samuel’s 2nd quarter interception to turn a 7-6 lead into a 14-6 edge, one they would never relinquish and would indeed add onto, via a Wes Welker TD reception from Brady in the 4th quarter.
Sure, the fact that San Diego lost one of the league’s best RBs LaDainian Tomlinson to injury early hurt their chances of scoring touchdowns in those red zone opportunities, but
they still had a resilient QB in Rivers and emerging receivers like Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson for him to throw to. Even TE Antonio Gates hung in the game with a dislocated toe. The Pats defense just had the poise and smarts to stop Rivers, backup RB Michael Turner and co. whenever they had to. In other words, they played like true champions.
Now, let’s just hope the Chargers don’t act like sore losers like they did after last year’s playoff loss to the Pats. (Hint: Tomlinson complaining that a couple Patriots over-celebrated their victory at San Diego and imitated Shawne Merriman’s own celebratory dance.)