Tom Brady's been in some pretty big games, but he didn't remember the playoffs being quite this tough.
"I was walking off the field and I said to Tedy [Bruschi], I go, 'Man, that was not easy.' He says to me, 'They never are buddy, they never are.' I guess (that's) this time of the year," said Brady in his postgame press conference. "Now there's two teams left in the AFC. Next week is going to be the toughest game of the year."
He led the Patriots to his 27th fourth-quarter comeback (just his sixth in the playoffs) against league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson and the Chargers on Sunday. Brady completed 27-of-54 passing attempts for 280 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw three interceptions, snapping a streak of 169 attempts without a pick, but the football gods smiled on him anyway. His last interception turned fortuitous when old reliable receiver Troy Brown(two receptions, 16 yards) forced a fumble to negate the interception and earn the Patriots a first down.
It was a fourth-and-5 play with 6:25 remaining in the game. Brady, who had just been sacked after leading the offense 9 yards into San Diego territory, tried to hit widout Reche Caldwell in coverage. The football traveled 10 yards on its way to Caldwell before Chargers free safety Marlon McCree snatched it up. Panic set in for Patriots fans everywhere.
But the play wasn't over yet. Brown, who is often asked to play nickel back on the Patriots defense, saw McCree carrying the ball like a loaf of bread and stripped him of it while making the tackle.
"Troy Brown is… that guy's a terrific football player," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick after the game. "He does it all."
Caldwell, a former Charger, was also in high pursuit of McCree. He saw the ball pop loose and dove on it. The Patriots had earned a first down. Chargers coachMarty Schottenheimer challenged the play, but Brown's strip was clean.
"It was fourth-and-6 so if it's incomplete, it's their ball anyway," explained Brady later. "So you're just trying to squeeze it in there. It ended up being a big play. I mean he intercepted it, and fortunately he intercepted it or else we wouldn't have got the ball back. Definitely not part of the plan."
Brady then directed his team to San Diego's 4-yard line, connecting with wideout Jabar Gaffney, who led the team for a second week in a row with 10 grabs for 103 yards and a touchdown, and tight end Benjamin Watson for his first catch of the game. Brady finished the drive by surveying the field on a play-action to running backCorey Dillon and hitting Caldwell in the back left corner of the end zone. The touchdown raised the score to 21-19, with the Patriots still behind. A two-point conversion would tie it up.
Brady stood behind center Dan Koppen, barking adjustments from the shotgun. Running backKevin Faulk, who led the team's ground attack with 6 carries for 25 yards, was lined up split left before sliding to Brady's right in motion. Koppen snapped the football directly to Faulk, with Brady faking a high catch, and Faulk scurried into the end zone to tie the game.
"Tom's a good quarterback. There's no quarterback I'd rather have," said Belichick after the game. "Nobody's going to play a perfect game. It's just not going to happen, as much as Tom tries and everybody else tries. In the end it's making more plays than the other team. That's what it came down to. I give Tom and the rest of the offense a lot of credit for coming out here, playing on the road, winning on the road and making plays when we were down. That's what a winning team does. If you can't make those plays, you don't win. We were able to make them today, and fortunately we're able to move on to next week."
The Chargers would have a chance to tie it later too, though kicker Nate Kaeding's 54-yard field goal attempt fell short of the mark.
The Pats won with fewer first downs, a lower third-down efficiency, and fewer total yards than the Chargers. They'll take on the Colts in the AFC Championships next weekend in Indianapolis.
Quote of note:Tom Brady on the Colts-Ravens game and Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning: "I watched a lot of that [AFC] game [Saturday] and it was kind of the same type of game. Just two very good defenses slugging it out. It just comes down to a few plays here or there and the Colts got those plays. It should be great. I mean we always enjoy playing Indy. I love watching Peyton play. I know it's going to be a tough challenge for our defense and a tough challenge for our offense going up against that Colt defense who's playing really well."
Gostkowski goes the distance
The Patriots scored their final three points of the game when rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski split the uprights on a 31-yard attempt with 1:10 remaining to cap the team's final drive of the game. It was the first game-winner Gostkowski has kicked in his NFL career. He's been perfect in the playoffs this season, nailing all six of his field goal attempts, including a 50-yarder in the first quarter to give the Patriots a 3-0 lead. Gostkowski hit a 52-yarder against Chicago in the regular season, but the 50-yard field goal was the longest in the Patriots 30-game playoff history, topping the previous mark of 48 yards, achieved by Adam Vinatieri in Super Bowl XXXVI and also in the 2004 AFC Championship Game. The Patriots will meet up with Vinatieri, who now plays for the Colts, next weekend in the RCA Dome.
"He's doing great," said Brady of Gostkowski after the game. "He's very poised for his age and he's got a very strong leg. (He's) just booting 'em through, so cross your fingers and hope it lasts another week."
Colvin keeps it up by coming down with the ball
Patriots linebacker Rosevelt Colvin intercepted aPhilip Rivers pass intended for Tomlinson at the Patriots 37-yard line on the final play of the third quarter. Rivers attempted to float the ball over Colvin's head, but the New England linebacker jumped, tipped the ball to himself and came down with it firmly in his grasp. The interception was the first of Colvin's playoff career and was his first interception since joining the Patriots in 2003. In his regular season career, Colvin has recorded two interceptions, both during the 2001 season while playing for the Chicago Bears. Sunday's interception marked Colvin's second big play in the passing game during this season's playoffs. Last week against the New York Jets, Colvin batted down a backwards pass by Chad Pennington, forcing a fumble that was recovered by New England's Vince Wilfork.
"[Colvin] made a nice play, he really did," said Belichick after the game. "He made a nice play on the ball. I think, just defensively, San Diego hasn't had many turnovers all year. I think they only had 15 the entire season. What did we get, four today? I think that's a real credit to our defense to be able to come up with those balls. [The Chargers] are pretty careful with it."
Patriots the team to beat when it comes to playoffs
With this win, coach Belichick improved his career playoff record to 13-2 (.867), a mark that ranks second in NFL history. The only coach with 10-or-more playoff games and a better record is the legendary Vince Lombardi, who was 9-1 (.900) in the playoffs.
Also with this win, the Patriots improved to 19-11 (.633) all-time in the playoffs, passing the Green Bay Pacers to claim the best playoff winning percentage in league history (among teams with at least 10 playoff games). Of the team's 19 playoff wins, 15 have come since Robert Kraft purchased the club in 1994. Over that span, the Patriots lead the NFL in total victories (144), overall winning percentage (.631), Super Bowl championships (3), conference championships (4), playoff wins (15), playoff winning percentage (15-5, .750) and playoff games played (20). New England is also tied for the NFL lead since 1994 with nine playoff seasons.