All Eyes on Arizona
Patriots Dispatch Chargers, Earn SB XLII Berth
In a game of big plays, New England made more, and made the most of them.
But they didn't make the first one. That honor went to San Diego's Quentin Jammer, who made a great play on a Tom Brady floater intended for Donté Stallworth on the Patriots third drive of the game. To that point, neither team had scored.
It was New England's defense making the next big play -- three of them in fact. And the defense would make many big plays for the ensuing 48 minutes.
21 - - - 12
Those first three came with the Chargers inside the Patriots 10-yard line. On those three, it was 11 guys doing their jobs. No highlight-reel material. But that trend would end soon, because the trend of San Diego driving deep into New England territory repeated itself of the Chargers' next possession.
With just 4 minutes elapsed in the second quarter, San Diego again drove to the Patriots 9-yard line. As on the previous drive, a pair of lineman made the stop on a rushing first down. Then aging Tedy Bruschi stretched out to knock down a sure touchdown from Philip Rivers to Antonio Gates at the goal line. Ellis Hobbs followed that effort with a great open-field tackle of Chris Chambers to prevent the touchdown again.
San Diego settled for their second field goal of the game. A recurring theme.
Who said this defense wasn't that good?
Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide -- The New England Patriots defense, derided in the media for "not being that good," allowed nothing but field goals and only 3 points in the second half of the AFC Championship game.
Photo courtesy: The Boston Globe / Barry Chin
While the offense mostly sputtered, the underrated defense kept up the pressure. The Chargers' next two offensive drives ended in Patriots' interceptions. Unfortunately, Rodney Harrison ended his streak of 4 straight post-season games with a pick. But Asante Samuel did it again, giving him 7 total in the 2007 campaign. Mike Vrabel was blocked in front of Rivers and was guilty of a leg whip, but Rivers tried to make a deep throw regardless.
That play was particularly significant, because New England turned it into points -- a 12-yard Brady-to-Jabar Gaffney strike that gave the Patriots all the points they'd need. It also put Brady all alone in second place for consecutive playoff games with a touchdown pass. He stands at 14, four behind Brett Favre, who extended his streak with a quirky 90-yard score later in the day.
Getting back to those Patriots INTs. San Diego had two chances to make the next one their own big play. Rivers went deep to Chambers. It might have been 6 for San Diego, but Rivers underthrew Chambers, and Hobbs was there again to make the play on the ball. In last year's divisional playoff meeting, San Diego picked off Brady, but Troy Brown forced a fumble and New England recovered. This time, it was New England picking off Rivers, and Vincent Jackson forced Hobbs to fumble. Lucky for the Patriots, James Sanders dove on the loose ball, and the Patriots retained possession.
The half ended with the defense keeping San Diego out of the end zone again, but they did give up a 26-yard Darren Sproles run that allowed the Chargers to put 3 more points on the board.
In addition to the big plays, the Patriots made the big halftime adjustments. San Diego would make the first big play of the second half, a Drayton Florence interception off a pass tipped by Stallworth that gave the Chargers a short field. San Diego drive to the New England 13 and the defense stiffened again.
Look! Down at the 30! -- Kevin Faulk stretches out and reels in a Tom Brady pass to convert a huge 3rd down on the AFC Championship game-ending drive.
Photo courtesy: Boston Herald / Matthew West
The Patriots offense moved the ball, but Brady threw his third interception of the game. Like Hobbs's interception and fumble, this was a two-time big play. Antonio Cromartie picked off Brady in the end zone, delaying New England from taking a 21-12 advantage. But he foolishly spurned taking a touchback and ran the ball out of the end zone, and Nick Kaczur downed him at the 4-yard line -- familiar and unwanted territory for the Chargers.
Turner took San Diego out of the shadow of their goal posts, but the Patriots tightened the screws and disallowed any further gains. With good field position once again, Brady finally capped a drive that started with an unexpected 14-yard pass to Heath Evans, launched forward with a 20-yard Laurence Maroney masterpiece up the middle, and culminated with a 6-yard pass from Brady to Wes Welker.
Over the next three minutes, the Chargers tried to move the ball in desperation. Rivers, who played a truly admirable game, couldn't make the important connection, but it's unlikely he -- or anyone -- thought that San Diego's offense wouldn't touch the ball again.
And then came some of the biggest plays of the game. The play most will remember came on a 3rd-and-11 with the Patriots on their own 24 with 7:16 left in the game. Failure to covert would likely have given San Diego one last chance, and with excellent field position. It was the most underrated, overlooked, littlest engine that could.
Five-foot-eight Kevin Faulk sprinted around the right side of the defense and up the sideline. Brady, who had floated so many too high, too low, floated this one almost too far. Faulk stretched every inch he could, caught the ball at the 31, landed at the 34, and rolled over the 35 for the first down.
When Faulk converted the next 3rd down at 4:28, it was already too late for San Deigo. The first conversion was the coffin-nailer. This one was the first shovel of dirt. Maroney converted two more 3rd downs to send New England to their fourth Super Bowl in 7 years.
Still crazy after all these years -- Linebacker Junior Seau brings down Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers in the first quarter. Seau later found himself sprinting into the backfield to drop Michael Turner for a loss.
Photo courtesy: Boston Herald / Matthew West
Faulk had 9 touches in the game -- 1 rushing carry, 8 receptions. Five of them resulted in first downs. Just prior to that 11-yard Superman impression, Brady had been sacked for an 8-yard loss (big mouth Igor Olshansky stole a half a sack from Stephen Cooper by falling on Cooper's quarry). Faulk also caught the 7-yard pass to set up the makable 3rd down.
New England gained 25 first downs in the game. Thirteen came on rushing plays, 11 on passing, 1 by penalty. Ten of the rushing first downs were Maroney's. There was at least one more really sweet play.
The grand old man, Seau, sacked Rivers to stymie San Diego's third possession. Brady's first interception nullified any ultimate game-changing significance, few will dispute that the play did have special significance for Seau, who turned 39 years old just a day before.
Sum it up in one word
I'm not fan of Philip Rivers, and certainly isn't the best quarterback in the league. We've seen many heroic performances by players of many positions over the years, but Rivers (unlike one of his teammates) deserves more than simple credit for his play on Sunday.
I'll let Steve McCroskey do the talking:
It wouldn't be a Patriots win over the San Diego Chargers without some kind of post-game fermented grapes. Last year it was LaDanianan Tomlinson complaining about Hobbs "did the dance Shawne Merriman is known for," and he went on to call the Patriots "classless" and saying it "started with the head coach." More about "LT" later.
This time it was center Nick Hardwick, who incoherently dribbled an expletive-laced tirade against New England multi-Pro Bow defensive end Richard Seymour. Hardwick's language and ridiculous (and false) allegations might be fit for some blogs, but not for this one. Suffice it to say that he called Seymour "dirty" -- and much worse.
The Boston Herald's John Tomase has a cleaned up version that also has Hardwick telling a Tennessee newspaper that "We're just as dirty, if not dirtier, than anyone else in the league, so we like that."
That's something else you wouldn't be surprised to read at other blogs, either. Claiming to be a big man and then whining about someone else.
Getting back to Tomlinson
Lightning: No match for Supermen -- Wide receiver Wes Welker picks up extra yardage by bowling over San Diego linebacker Jyles Tucker in the second quarter of the AFC Championship game won by New England 21-12 (Ω).
Photo courtesy: The Boston Globe / Jim Davis
So when he sat sulking on the sideline after just the Chargers' second series, most people were a little confused. He certainly didn't look like he was hobbled, either in the game or leaving the field. And he just sat there on the bench with his blacked-out, visored helmet.
Since Tomlinson disappeared after the game and refused to meet the media, we are left to ask open questions and draw our own conclusions.
Was he afraid to show his face? Even on the sideline, he kept his face shielded. He offered no visible encouragement to his teammates. He made no obvious effort to keep his head in the game, even if his body was unable.
He abandoned his teammates.
Is that a leader?
There also is the question of whether the Chargers were defrauding the league and the Patriots with a falsified injury report if Tomlinson's condition was known -- which it seems hard to believe that it wasn't.
I was hoping he (I'll refrain from calling him "gutless" until there are more details) would address the media after the game, because I wanted to ask him if he thought Cromartie was classless for running out to the 20-yard line after intercepting Brady and "doing the touchdown celebration Randy Moss is known for."
You don't think so?
Neither do I.
The Patriots are currently favored by 14 points in Super Bowl XLII. That's ..
This poll is closed
.. way too high.
.. a little high.
.. just about right.
.. a little low.
.. way too low.