Team Beats Individuals
Also Beat Officials, Steroids and Ticket Policy
Despite being outnumbered by (a) Pro Bowl selections, 9-1, (b) All-Pro players, 6-1, (c) MVPs, 1-0, (d) steroid suspensions, 1-0, (e) zebras, 7-0, and (f) stadium attendees, 71,000 to 294 (roughly), the New England Patriots beat "the best team in the league," 24-21 in the AFC Divisional Playoffs.
New England did it with (a) defense, (b) two signature end-of-half Tom Brady drives, (c) a great play by sometime defensive back Troy Brown, and (d) a game-winning field goal by rookie placekicker Stephen Gostkowski.
New England trailed the San Diego Chargers by 11 late in the first half and by 8 late in the game, but Brady, who had an overall poor game, put together two "patented" drives and led the Patriots to a pair of touchdowns and Gostkowski's field goal.
Once again, this is really the defenses win. The didn't stop LaDainian Tomlinson, but they "contained" him. After Tomlinson ripped the Patriots for 79 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries and 2 catches for 64 yards (58 on one screen pass) in the first half, they limited him to 44 yards and a touchdown on 9 carries and 0 catches in the second half.
They shut down Philip Rivers in the second half, too. Rivers was 6 of 11 for 117 in the first half. He was 8 of 15 for 113 and an interception in the second half.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady heads off the field after
defeating Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers,
24-21 in the AFC Division Playoffs. See you in Indianapolis.
They stifled Antonio Gates almost completely: 2 catches for 12 yards in the first half, 4 for 49 in the second (19 on one play).
The team that has scored far and away the most fourth quarter points of any team in the league, they limited to 7, and that was all in the entire second half.
Excepting Tomlinson's 58-yard screen pass, the defense played a typically stingy and consistent game, and they came up with a dozen big plays to keep the Patriots in it.
Linebacker Mike Vrabel was everywhere early in the game (despite being "weaker" inside, according to many "experts"). He strip-sacked Rivers when Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer decided to try to convert a 4th-and-11 at the Patriots 30 late in the first quarter. (So much for confidence in your Pro Bowl placekicker). That led to 3 points at the end of a 9 play, 33-yard drive, and Vrabel's play culminated in a 3-0 Patriots lead.
Vrabel was there to recover Gates's fumble at the Patriots 2-yard line, but that play was inexplicably overturned by referee Tony Corrente on Schottenheimer's replay challenge.
Of course, there was Rosevelt Colvin's interception on the last play of the third quarter. The Patriots should have started in Charger territory when classy Tomlinson brutally facemasked Colvin. The official right on top of the play threw the flag, but Corrente stepped in again -- inexplicably -- and waved off the penalty.
Ellis Hobbs and Asante Samuel also had several huge pass: Hobbs 4, Samuel 2.
New England Patriots running back Kevin Faulk (center) celebrates with
the offensive line after scoring a 2-point conversion on a direct snap
to tie the game at 21 late in the fourth quarter in San Diego.
And it wasn't just the defense making humongous plays.
When Eric Parker muffed a Todd Sauerbrun punt late in the third quarter, Antwain Spann knocked a scrambling Parker off the ball, and David Thomas jumped on the loose pigskin. The Patriots took advantage of the field position and, though they moved the ball only 15 yards on 7 plays, they were close enough for Gostkowski to connect on a 34-yarder and draw New England to within 14-13.
Anything to Help the Team
And then came the bizarre play of the game in a game with several pretty odd plays.
Brady, looking for Troy Brown over the middle, drilled Charger safety Marlon McCree in the chest for an interception. It was fourth down, and McCree only had to knock down the pass or fall down with the ball, but McCree tried to run with it, and Brown, having played defensive back in several games over the last few years, switched modes and stripped McCree of the ball.
Reche Caldwell pounced on the loose ball, and the Patriots still had a shot with 6:16 to play.
That led to Brady's second methodical, late-half drive of the game. Seven yards to Jabar Gaffney, 12 to Gaffney, 8 to Ben Watson and a 4-yard touchdown to Caldwell. That made the score 21-19.
New England Patriots wide receiver Reche Caldwell hauls in a key 49-yard
reception to set up the game-winning field goal in New England's 24-21 AFC
Divisional Playoff win over the San Diego Chargers, Caldwell's former team.
To tie the game, as they did in Super Bowl XXXIX, Brady and Faulk brilliantly executed a direct snap to Faulk, Brady faking the high snap, and Faulk danced into the end zone for the 2-point conversion.
The defense held San Diego to another three-and-out, leaving 3:30 on the game clock -- plenty of time for a Brady-led offense to put points on the board.
Brady hit Daniel Graham for 19 yards to start the game-winning drive. Two incomplete passes left New England with a 3rd-and-10. San Diego was already preparing to receive the punt. But Brady went deep to Caldwell, who was getting mauled by Quentin Jammer all the way down the sideline. Caldwell reeled in the pass but was unable to tip-toe to the end zone. Still, a gain of 49 put the Patriots where they wanted to be.
Three Dillon runs ran time off the clock and consumed San Diego's final timeout and the 2-minute warning. That cleared the way for Gostkowski to break some ground in his young career.
The defense did its job -- again -- and kept San Diego from getting close enough to allow Pro Bowl placekicker Nate Kaeding a real shot at tying the game.
McDaniels Earns His Paycheck
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called an inspired game.
While most of us wondered where Dillon and Maroney were, McDaniels was setting up the Chargers.
New England Patriots placekicker Stephen Gostkowski makes a 34-yard
game-winning field goal with 1:14 left in regulation. Gostkowski earlier
connected on a 50-yard field goal, a Patriots playoff record.
Before Brady hit Caldwell in the end zone, Kevin Faulk had 6 carries in the game. Dillon and Maroney had just 5 each, and there had not been a screen or play-action pass seemingly in forever.
From the last two plays in the third quarter, Brady dropped back to pass on 22 straight plays (not including punts). Prior to that, Brady threw on 13 of 15 plays (a rush each by Maroney and Faulk) before splitting the stretches with consecutive handoffs to Maroney.
So there's no way the Chargers expected the play action to Dillon and the pass to a wide-open Caldwell, and no chance they saw the direct snap to Faulk coming.
Props to The Rook
Gostkowski made three field goals for the second straight week. This week, they were kicks of 50, 34 and 31. Gostkowski has light years to go to displace Adam Vinatieri in New England Patriots legend and lore, but he made two big strides against the Chargers.
The 50-yarder is a Patriots playoff record, beating Vinatieri's game-winning 48-yarder to end Super Bowl XXXVI, and his 34-yarder is his first high-pressure and game-winning kick.
Gostkowski now has 6 field goals and 5 extra points in the playoffs.