By Scott Benson
A ballsy New England Patriots team defied four months of abject (and now, obsolete) skepticism with today’s 24-21 comeback road win over the top ranked San Diego chargers, a win that returns the proud three-time champions to the AFC Championship Game for the fourth time in six seasons.
Awaiting the Patriots will be old friends the Indianapolis Colts, and all that they entail, but that is a story for the rest of the week. Tonight is to celebrate another one for the books. The Patriots scored eleven points in the final five minutes to erase an eight point deficit with an unconventional, yet DVD-worthy comeback. They had three turnovers and rushed for 50 yards and still beat the best team in the AFC on its home field.
Troy Brown made the pivotal play, not as a receiver, not as a defensive back, but as both. As the Patriots drove into Chargers territory with little more than six minutes to play, needing both a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie, a miserable Tom Brady was intercepted on a fourth down try from the SD 41. As safety Marlon McCree moved upfield with San Diego’s third interception of the day, he was stripped by intended receiver Brown, and Reche Caldwell recovered. The Pats had not their backs against the wall, but the ball and another life. Even the field position was better.
Brady, fighting through a tough San Diego game plan that left him hurried with few options, would nonetheless not miss this chance. Two competions to Jabar Gaffney (again, the Patriots receiving star, with his second straight 100 yard game) drove the ball inside the Chargers 10 and set up Caldwell’s 4 yard touchdown catch (on a nifty Brady pocket move to his left) at 4:41.
Kevin Faulk tied the game when he took the direct snap and slammed it in for two behind a big push by the Pats offensive line. How in the world did the Chargers not see this – the Patriots signature two-point play – coming?
After the Patriots defense (which had at times been pushed around by the Chargers) forced an immediate three-and-out, an elivened Brady drove the Pats 72 more yards in two minutes, before Stephen Gostkowski capped the comeback with a 31 yarder with 1:14 left. It was the rookie’s his third field goal of the day (including a 50 yard missile to open the scoring) and the first game winner of his career.
Again Caldwell was the central figure in the late drive; his fly pattern past Quentin Jammer put him directly beneath a perfect 49 bomb from Brady, and he fought off a closing Jammer to gather in the ball before stumbling out at the SD 15. Caldwell nearly tightroped the sideline all the way to the end zone (it looked like he could have stayed in, had he not looked behind him) and set up the Ghost’s chip shot winner.
Phillip Rivers drove the Chargers into Pats territory as time ran out (thanks to a 21 grab by Eric Parker, who until then had failed him), but Nate Kaeding’s 54 yard attempt to tie fell short and to the right, and the Patriots had one of the most memorable playoff wins of their already-remarkable history.
An apt comparison to other playoff triumphs comes hard. Perhaps Oakland in January of 2002, when all appeared lost before Brady (and Adam Vinatieri) drove the Pats to the win. Today, the game seemed closed to slipping away on more than one occasion. Yet, when all is said and done, the Patriots play on.
After a slow first quarter, the Chargers burst to a 14-3 lead with two second-period touchdowns. San Diego rode to their first score, a 2 yard plunge by Ladainian Tomlinson, after winning an early field position battle that left them with short fields for most of the first half. Three minutes later, Tomlinson set up another score when he grabbed a screen in the right flat and ran past both Mike Vrabel and Artrell Hawkins for 58 yard play to the New England 6.
Michael Turner carried over on the next play and the Chargers threatened to run away with it with just two minutes remaining in the half.
The Patriots offense – operating, even in the shadow of its own goal posts, from a full spread offense that often featured no running backs – had been unable to move the chains thanks to tight coverage by the Chargers and the ever present threat of their pass rush. Donnie Edwards intercepted Brady first, but no harm was done, expect perhaps to the Pats psyche. But with two minutes left before the break, Brady mixed runs by Kevin Faulk with more intermediate passing to Jabar Gaffney, and a huge third down conversion to Caldwell at the SD 27. As the last seconds ticked off the clock, Brady found Gaffney along the back line of the end zone and the Patriots crawled back in the game at the half.
The defenses took over again as the second half started, until Brady was again pinned back by his own goal line with seven minutes left in the third. After a quick first down to Brown, the Chargers stiffened and forced another Todd Sauerbrun punt. But Parker could not hang on to the 51 yard kick (Sauerbrun crushed them all day), and Antwan Spann slammed him as he tried to reccover. Instead, the ball was covered by David Thomas at the SD 31. But Brady couldn’t move them, and on third down, he fumbled when Shawn Phillips sacked him. Matt Light fell on the loose ball, but the Pats were left with nothing but a long field goal attempt. Until Drayton Florence – who had already extended the dive with an illegal contact earlier – stepped in with a late taunt of Dan Graham, which brought the flag and another first down for the Patriots. The Chargers held again but this time the Pats were close enough for the kick and a one point game.
Yet it almost slipped away again, when the Chargers drove 83 yards for another Tomlinson touchdown – and an eight point lead – to open the fourth quarter. Antonio Gates twice got too open to be believed (in fact, he cost himself God knows how many yards on one catch, when he ran out of bounds despite being unchallenged) and Vincent Jackson out-leapt Ellis Hobbs for a Rivers throw to the Patriots three. LT’s TD brought the game to eight with just eight minutes to play. The Patriots were up against it and just minutes from ending their season exactly as they had last year.
The moral being, of course, thank God for Tom Brady. Even though he was intercepted three times and struggled under great pressure often, Brady persevered, leading the team on three dramatic drives that would win the game. San Diego had the right game plan for the Patriots offense, but even in their own stadium, they could not vanquish the Patriot legend. The two-time Super Bowl MVP bows to no one tonight.
Not to seem unappreciative, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out that Patriots game plan, which flooded the field with receivers and rendered invisible Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon, two of the team’s best offensive players. The Pats struggled mightily in this set, and the runners were conspicuous in their absense, which makes the New England rally that saved the season that much more incredible.
The Patriots defense fought off Tomlinson, occasionally landing a first down blow but still teetering on the edge of a big play for most of the day, right until the end. Tomlinson gouged them badly with the 58 yard screen, and ripped off several runs of 10 yards or more (finishing with 123 on 23 carries). Three times the Chargers drove inside the Patriots red zone – unchartered territory, until today – and walked away with touchdowns. On both sides of the ball, San Diego gave the Patriots everything they could handle. Rivers, the untested third-year pro bowler, did not wilt but battled through tough stretches of his own to make clutch throws to Gates and Jackson and almost lead the Chargers to an incredible last second field goal for a tie.
Tedy Bruschi had eleven tackles to lead the Patriots, but the New England defensive front took its lumps throughout. Neither Seymour nor Warren nor Wilfork took over, and the secondary bore the pressure. Hobbs was beaten for the late throw to Jackson that set up a touchdown, but he scrapped all day as the Chargers went at him with the run and the pass (as did Tomlinson, for a Hobbs post-game homage to Shawn Merriman’s sack dance, which later led LT to claim the Patriots have no class, right up through the head coach. The dance itself, apparently, is plenty classy. By the way – did Merriman play?). Asante Samuel scared the Chargers from even trying his side, and showed why with two timely pass breakups. The safeties (including Chad Scott, who also filled in at corner) tackled well and forced hard to the line of scrimmage in run support. Tully Banta-Cain can’t say the same, as he was worn out repeatedly by Tomlinson and the Charger blocking tight ends. Rosevelt Colvin had an athletic interception, leaping to tip, then catch, a Rivers dump to Tomlinson in Pats territory.
The Patriots offensive line wasn’t asked to run block (53 passing plays to just 19 runs; Kevin Faulk was the leading rusher with 25 yards) and Brady was only sacked twice (once by Merriman, who must have had to leave early). But there was constant pressure and the occasional free blitzer; still, they held it together for the comeback, and their push on Faulk’s two pointer was a critical win on a must-have play.
With no running game, the much-maligned wide receivers really stepped forward for the Pats today. Brown (who also had five catches) probably saved the season with his well-timed strip. He may have also gotten Marty Schottenheimer fired; Marty blew a challenge by claiming McCree was down before fumbling – no chance – and then he didn’t have one to use when Rivers hit Parker with the late pass in New England territory. Basically, this loss came down to the Charger defense not stopping the Pats when it counted; but Marty didn’t help by pissing away that TO.
Gaffney collected ten catches for 103 yards and the late first-half touchdown. So many of his catches were in the intermediate 15-20 area, where the Pats have trailed off this year. In the last two weeks, the former Texan has 18 catches for 207 yards and today’s enormous score. An Incredible in-season pickup.
And then Caldwell. Written off again and again this season, never measuring up in the eyes of the skeptics, alertly recovering the McCree fumble and then catching the tying touchdown minutes later, before sprinting past Jammer to gather in the Brady pass that ensured the win in the stadium he used to call home.
Lastly, we consider Gostkowski. The rookie kicker that makes the ‘experts’ nervous is now 6 for 6 in the playoffs, and has the first notch on his belt.
To review for those scoring at home, the Patriots clinched a berth in the AFC championship today – one step farther than they had advanced last year – on the strength of their wide receivers and their placekicker. Michael Felger and his devoted yet possibly mental following can stick THAT right in their pipe and smoke it tonight. You ignorant mooks have wasted your time and my time and everybody else’s time with your relentless negative bullshit for four months and what the hell did it prove? Nothing. Not a damn thing. You laughed at anybody that suggested they’d earned a chance to recover from what everybody agreed was the pisser of an off-season. You laughed. Wait for what? YOU KNEW NOW. You didn’t need to wait and see, because you just knew. Well, you don’t know jack shit. That much has been proven, by the same team you dogged for four months. They proved you don’t know shit. Now go get your effing shinebox.
And now, one of the great rivalries of the modern NFL is renewed, this time – as the Colts have long dreamed – in Indianapolis. Its all too much to take in tonight. One thing, though, isn’t – the Patriots That Weren’t Good Enough for Anybody are in fact good enough to be one win from the Super Bowl.