FOXBORO, Mass. – It seemed the New England Patriots had won every way possible this season: blowouts, close games, and come-from-behind finishes.
But they did it an entirely different way Sunday evening in the AFC Championship Game – with QB Tom Brady having an off night.
After being two drops shy of a perfect performance against Jacksonville last weekend, Brady threw 11 incompletions (some wildly off target) versus San Diego, including three interceptions. One of those INTs was in the end zone on a third-and-goal from the two.
Yes, the Pats won 21-12, advancing to Super Bowl XLII. But, no, this wasn't Brady's night.
Thankfully, it was Laurence Maroney's and the defense's.
39 tops 100 again
On Sunday, New England's starting running back bulldozed his way to his fourth 100-yard game in the past five contests. He did so by lowering his head and taking on defenders on some plays – a battle Maroney won nearly every time – and dancing his way out of the grasp of would-be tacklers on others.
The Pats needed the extra effort from Maroney more than ever, with Brady having one of least impressive performances all season. Maroney's ability to grind out yardage also milked the clock, particularly on the game's final drive.
With 9:13 remaining in the fourth quarter and New England holding onto a nine-point lead, the Pats were able to run out the clock, thanks in large part to Maroney. Of the 13 plays on that drive (excluding Brady's two kneel-downs at the end), Maroney carried the ball on eight of them, including six in a row at the end.
He finished the AFC Championship Game with 122 yards on 25 carries, including New England's first touchdown of the night.
"Especially in the second half, we were able to get a feel for it," C Dan Koppen said of the New England running game. "Guys really took it to heart that we needed to control the ball, get first downs, move the chains, and keep the offense out on that field. The guys buckled down and we were able to do that, especially on that last drive.
"Laurence has been running hard for us all year. When we've called on him, he's been right there to step in. He's seeing the holes really good right now, running hard, putting his head down. He's a great runner."
"I couldn't be more proud of him," FB Heath Evans added. "Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. And he's proven to be that. Hopefully it will continue. This kid is super talented, super confident, he's working hard, and he's getting better."
LT's diminishing returns
3, 2, 1.
Those were the amount of yards Chargers All-Pro RB LaDainian Tomlinson picked up on his three touches (two carries, one catch).
Coming into the game, Tomlinson was nursing a bruised knee that he injured last week in Indianapolis. But he practiced every day this past week and wasn't listed on the final injury report Friday. All indications were that he was good-to-go.
But after his third play, Tomlinson left the game for good. His condition was reported as "sore knee, can return," yet he never did. Meanwhile, his QB, Philip Rivers, who also hurt a knee against the Colts a week ago, didn't practice all week, and was assumed to be out. But, despite a visible limp, he took every snap from center for the Chargers.
He may not have been the best option at QB for San Diego, given his limited mobility, but at least he gave his team an effort.
The same could not be said for Tomlinson. Had he been able to play more, his team might have had a better chance of finding the end zone.
SD's FGs, NE's TDs
You can't trade touchdowns for field goals and expect to win a football game.
San Diego advanced to New England's red zone on three occasions, but had to settle for three field goals – a testament to the Pats' red-zone defense, which had been a weak spot early in the season.
"The red area defense stepped up," a relieved head coach Bill Belichick said after the game.
They allowed San Diego to pass up and down the field most of the night, with WRs Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers getting open consistently in the middle of the field.
But the Pats defense tightened up when the Chargers got inside the 20-yard line. And that proved to be the difference in the game.
"He had an off day," Evans said of Brady, "and this team still beat a great San Diego Chargers team. It says we're a well-coached team. It says we execute when push comes to shove. Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli have done a heck of a job putting together a heck of a family here."
"It's a total team. Coach preaches that all the time," observed WR Jabar Gaffney, who caught a touchdown from Brady in the second quarter.
"If one phase of the game isn't working as well, the other phases have to step up. And the defense stepped up tremendously. Special teams played great, and we did enough on offense to get the W."
And another shot to win a Super Bowl.