FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Tom Brady bounced a couple of passes, sailed a few more and threw three to the wrong team. Hardly perfect. Hardly mattered, either. The New England Patriots still were too good for the banged-up San Diego Chargers. A far-from-vintage 21-12 victory Sunday in the AFC championship game sent the Brady Bunch back to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in seven seasons.
21-JAN-2008: New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, left,
quarterback Tom Brady, center, and running back Laurence Maroney,
right, celebrate after winning the AFC Championship football game
21-12 against the San Diego Chargers in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday,
Jan. 20, 2008, to advance to the Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Gene J.
Puskar) [Photo copyright 2008 by AP]
LAST MINUTE TRAVEL DEALS
Next up is another date with the New York Giants, and a chance for the Patriots to give their 18-0 record a whole new meaning.
"I think you enter the season and you're hoping to put together a bunch of great wins and you realize there's challenges every step of the way", Brady said. "And to not have a letdown like most teams have - we had a few letdowns or times where we didn't play our best, but we overcame them."
Yet for everything the Patriots have accomplished - they're the only team in NFL history to start out with 18 straight victories - they're well aware they must win that final matchup to avoid being relegated to a footnote.
"We'll try to elevate our game for one last performance", said Brady, MVP in two of the three Super Bowls he's won.
All season long, coach Bill Belichick focused solely on the upcoming opponent. Showered by confetti on a postgame platform, the man of few words gave his team the OK to talk about the biggest game of all.
"Now we can look ahead", he said.
And prepare to see a familiar face in Eli Manning and the Giants on Feb. 3 in Glendale, Ariz. The Patriots finished off their exhibition schedule by beating the Giants, then wrapped up the regular season by defeating them in a 38-35 thriller.
The Chargers seemed to stand little chance, especially with star LaDainian Tomlinson injured.
Nursing a bad left knee, Tomlinson did not get off on the right foot and watched most of the game in a parka. San Diego kept it close by intercepting Brady a season-high three times, and trailed 14-12 going into the fourth quarter.
Brady made several stunningly poor throws that fluttered in the wind, Randy Moss was a non-factor for the second straight game and the highest-scoring team in NFL history sputtered all afternoon. Instead, the Patriots relied on Laurence Maroney's spins, cuts and helmet-rattling runs.
"It felt like everything was a struggle today", Brady said. "We didn't perform the way I thought we were capable of."
Brady, coming off a record-setting 50 TD passes, threw for two scores. His 6-yard strike to Wes Welker early in the fourth quarter let the Patriots pull away.
"There was history on the line", New England linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "We recognize it, we acknowledge it."
New England took care of the nuts and Bolts on a most chilly day. The sellout crowd at Gillette Stadium chanted "Super Bowl! Super Bowl!" in the closing minutes, anticipating the Pats' first appearance in the big game since the 2004 season.
Belichick's team eclipsed the 17-0 mark of the champion 1972 Miami Dolphins, and he'll soon try for his fourth NFL title.
"I think there will be a time to sit back and reflect", Belichick said. "We'll certainly enjoy this for a few days."
Brady earned his 100th career victory and advanced without a hint of girlfriend drama - taking notes, Tony Romo? The dimpled Patriots quarterback will bring true glam to Super Bowl: Imagine the paparazzi buzz if Brady is sighted with Gisele Bundchen.
A model of success in the late season, the Chargers (13-6) fell short minus Tomlinson. He was hurt last week in the playoff upset of the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts, and was mostly a spectator as San Diego's eight-game winning streak ended.
Tomlinson carried on the first two San Diego plays, but did not run it again. Quarterback Philip Rivers hung in despite a torn ligament in his knee and star tight end Antonio Gates did his best with a dislocated toe.
"From getting it reinjured the first play, I just knew I didn't have it", Tomlinson said. "I'm kind of at a loss for words."
The Chargers never could get into the end zone and had to settle for four field goals by Nate Kaeding.
"LT tried to go and he just couldn't go", Chargers coach Norv Turner said.
Routed 38-14 at New England in September, the Chargers hung tough. Maroney dashed their hopes for a comeback, running for 122 yards and letting the Patriots control the ball in the fourth quarter.
It was 23 degrees at gametime and the brisk wind caused more problems. The goal posts shook with every gust while passes and punts sailed in crazy directions.
"It wasn't a balmy day, I'm not saying that, but it wasn't bad", Belichick said.
Brady badly missed his first two passes - he threw a total of two incompletions in 28 attempts last week in the win over Jacksonville.
Maroney plunged in from the 1 barely over a minute into the second quarter and, with light flurries falling, the Patriots were ahead for good.
"We're not going to get all carried away with the undefeated season", linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "We did that in the regular season."
Notes:@ Brady threw a TD pass in his 14th straight postseason game. ... Maroney has scored a touchdown in five straight games. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
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