By: Bob George/
January 14, 2007

SAN DIEGO -- The Patriots won on Sunday because they know how to win better than San Diego does. End of story.

If you need any more convincing, sit down and crunch Tom Brady's numbers. 27 of 51 passing. Three interceptions. Hurried and harassed all game long, even with Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips out for stretches of the game. Then break down LaDainian Tomlinson for good measure. 123 yards rushing (and two touchdowns), 64 yards receiving, including a 58-yard screen pass reception. In summary, perennial hero Brady played like he did last year against Denver, and once again the Patriots failed to deal adequately with Tomlinson.

But it was the Patriots who earned the right to play the Indianapolis Colts next week for the AFC Championship, not the top-seeded San Diego Chargers. Showing their true championship pedigree, the Patriots withstood an unbelievable defensive assault from the home team and escaped Qualcomm Stadium with a 24-21 victory, sending them to the RCA Dome next Sunday for a chance to play in Super Bowl XLI. The Chargers came out exactly as advertised, but the Patriots were able to do all the right things at the right times to come out with perhaps their toughest playoff win since the 2001 Snow Bowl.

The game was a brutal struggle from start to finish, but in the end it was the Patriots who made the plays which brought victory. In contrast, it brought still more playoff shame and infamy to Marty Schottenheimer, who now is 5-13 in the postseason in his coaching career and could likely be fired as Charger head coach because of this loss. While this loss cannot be totally hung on Schottenheimer, there were such issues as spent timeouts and ill-advised challenges which must fall at the feet of the snake-bitten Charger head coach.

Tomlinson did indeed get his yards, but a key to the Patriot win was how they handled Antonio Gates. He was pretty much held in check until the end of the game, making four of his team-high six catches in the fourth quarter. The Patriots pretty much let LT do his thing, but holding Gates to only 61 yards receiving (three yards fewer than LT) was a major key to the Patriots' win.

Holding Gates in check was critical, given that Brady threw three interceptions yet still managed to beat the AFC top seed on the road. With Gates taken out of the picture (and was nearly a fumble victim in the second quarter, which was overturned on replay when it was determined that he didn't make a football move), the Patriots were able to concentrate on rushing Rivers and daring him to beat the Patriots with his wide receivers. As a result, Vincent Jackson and Eric Parker had only 2 catches each, and Rivers actually finished with a lower passer rating than Brady (55.5) thanks largely to 14 of 32 passing for only 230 yards.

This holding both Gates and Rivers down helped set the stage for the various heroic efforts of the Patriots. Patriot Nation will look at tonight as the night Stephen Gostkowski officially came of age, nailing a 31-yard field goal with 1:10 left for his first game-winning field goal in his brief NFL career and shaking off all those comparisons with the man he replaced as Patriot kicker. But men like Jabar Gaffney, Reche Caldwell, Kevin Faulk, Matt Light and Troy Brown were equally as heroic, as they all made key plays which brought victory to the Patriots.

Gaffney is emerging as this year's playoff folk hero, thanks to his effort last week against the Jets and this week's stellar effort. He finished with ten catches for 103 yards, both team highs. But on what was the first real key drive of the game, at the end of the first half, Gaffney caught four passes for 46 yards and a key touchdown which made it 14-10 Chargers at the half, and it sent the Patriots into the locker room with emotional momentum for the second half. Given the alternative of trailing 14-3 or worse on the road, Gaffney's effort here was huge for the Patriots.

Caldwell came home and stuck it to his old team with a great effort, making seven catches for 80 yards and a touchdown. On the Patriots' second to last drive of the game, Caldwell caught a four-yard touchdown pass from Brady to make it 21-19 with 4:36 left in the game. He then later caught a 49-yard right sideline pass to set up the game-winning field goal. Caldwell was booed every time he touched the ball, but he showed a great deal of poise and clutch out there.

After Caldwell caught his touchdown pass, Faulk came through with a familiar play. He lined up next to Brady in a shotgun formation in going for two points. Experienced Patriot fans knew what was coming. Like Super Bowl XXXVIII, Faulk took the direct snap and barreled in to tie the game at 21. Faulk led the team in rushing with 25 yards on six carries, and he was the only Patriot back who was able to solve the powerful Charger front seven.

Light and Brown made key fumble recoveries which helped save the bacon for the Patriots. In the third quarter, Brady was hit by Phillips at the San Diego 36, and the ball popped loose. Light fell on the ball at the 33, saving the drive and allowing Gostkowski to pull the Patriots within one point at 14-13 with a 34-yard field goal.

Brown's play in the fourth quarter saved the season for the Patriots. Facing fourth and five at the San Diego 41 with 6:25 left and trailing 21-13, Brady suffered his third pick of the night as Marlon McCree stepped in front of Brown and made the pick. Brown alertly went into defensive back mode and tackled the ball. Caldwell fell on McCree's fumble at the 32, and would go on to score the game-tying touchdown five plays later. It is plays like these made by Brown which typifies the Patriots during this dynastic stretch, plays made at important times which turn out to be monumental over the long haul.

On this play, Schottenheimer foolishly threw the red flag on a play which was clearly a fumble. The subsequent lost challenge reduced San Diego's timeout total to one. Schottenheimer spent that last timeout before the two-minute warning, just before Gostkowski's game-winning field goal. The Chargers thus had no timeouts going into their final drive, and could only get to the Patriot 36 before a Nate Kaeding 54-yard field goal attempt fell short with two seconds left.

The Patriots thus punch their ticket for Indianapolis. All sorts of sidebars come into play, including their past playoff mastery over Peyton Manning, Manning's two recent victories over New England, and having to play against Adam Vinatieri. It will be in the RCA Dome this time, the first time the AFC Championship Game has been played indoors. The Patriots have lots more history on their side in addition to their Colt domination; in franchise history, the Patriots have never lost an AFC Championship Game (5-0).

The Chargers see their season of glory turn into a season of anguish. Tomlinson went off after the game, wanting to tear Ellis Hobbs' head off because of excess celebrating. General manager A.J. Smith may show Schottenheimer the door thanks to still another early playoff exit. Rivers learned a tough lesson on how hard it is to win in the postseason, no matter how well your team did in the regular season.

The Patriots have to hope that they didn't completely spend their energy tank in trying to win this one. They'll need ten times more energy next week.