Resilient Patriots pull plug on Chargers' Super Bowl dream
Play-off master Brady leads New England to another AFC title game
As the final seconds faded, New England Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs ran towards the centre of Qualcomm Stadium, where the outline of a Chargers helmet had been painted on the field.
Hobbs danced. But he didn't just do any dance. This time, doing his best impersonation of San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman's 'Lights Out' celebration, Hobbs sent a cold message to everyone who had just seen his team's improbable 24-21 victory. Lights out. Season over.
'They were the sexy team,' Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. 'Everyone in San Diego had their plane flight to the Super Bowl already planned. But we knew it was a game we had to win.'
But in the end, it was Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (the three-time Super Bowl champion) who showed Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer (the coach with the most regular-season victories without a championship) why he is the real master of the post-season.
Shouldn't we have seen this coming? Forget San Diego's 10-consecutive victories to end the regular season. Forget running back LaDainian Tomlinson's historic MVP season. Forget that the Chargers had nine players voted to the Pro Bowl this season. Forget all of those impressive, intriguing reasons why the Chargers were the team expected to play in Miami on February 4.
And remember this: 'I felt like we probably hit Brady more than a lot of teams have hit him this whole entire season,' Merriman said. 'But he did exactly what we thought he was going to do.'
Brady, plain and simple, bounced back. Like always. After throwing a career-play-off-high three interceptions, Brady turned his team around while marching for 11 points in the final five minutes. Of course, as also seems to be the case with the fate-filled Patriots, a little luck didn't hurt either.
Shortly after Tomlinson scored on a three-yard run to give the Chargers a 21-13 lead, Brady threw his third interception of the game. This one was especially harsh because the Patriots were trying to convert on a fourth-down play. But as safety Marlon McCree tried to return the interception, receiver Troy Brown managed to pop the ball back out. Receiver Reche Caldwell recovered the fumble, and the Patriots had another first down.
'Whenever the ball gets taken away, that's the first thing you think about,' said wide receiver Jabar Gaffney, who led the Patriots with 10 catches for 103 yards. 'If they take it, get it back from them. They're on defence, so they're not used to carrying the ball all of the time,' he said.
Brady delivered a message to his teammates when they got back into the huddle. The Chargers were giving them too many chances. For the third time, the Patriots had recovered a fumble. But they had yet to capitalise. For most of the game, San Diego controlled the momentum. Tomlinson had been plugging away, as usual, running for 123 yards and catching two passes for 61 yards. Not any more. 'That just goes to show you the heart of this team,' Gaffney said. 'Never say die. Never say die on any play.'
The Patriots went ahead 24-21 on rookie Stephen Gostkowski's 31-yard field goal with 1:10 remaining. The Chargers got one more shot - a 54-yard field-goal attempt with three seconds left - but Pro Bowl kicker Nate Kaeding's kick fell a few yards short. The play put a premature cap on an otherwise impressive season by the league's hottest team.
'With a team like that, you can't make too many mistakes,' Merriman said. 'As soon as you do, they take advantage of it and definitely use it against you. And they did it quite a few times.'