]()A cold north wind and a tough Chargers defense forced Tom Brady to throw three interceptions but the Patriots defense kept Phillip Rivers and his offense out of the end zone throughout and that was the difference as the Patriots will once again represent the AFC in the Super Bowl with a 21-12 win.
Brady had only 209 yards passing while throwing two touchdowns against the three picks. Yet, he was able to fall back to his running game. Laurence Maroney continued his hot January with 122 yards on 25 carries and a score.
The player of the game may have been Kevin Faulk. All of his 8 catches for 82 yards seemed to come exactly when his team needed them most.
Opening speculation on the Chargers injured players had Rivers the least likely to play but the San Diego quarterback gutted out his injury while LaDanian Tomlinson was forced to the bench in the first quarter with his. Rivers finished the game with 211 yards passing on 37 attempts and 19 completions. He couldn't find the end zone, though, and field goals instead of touchdowns weren't good enough to beat the Patriots.
Antonio Gates, the other Charger battling injury, stayed on the field for the most part but was not his usual self.
This amazing run of success by the Patriots continues as does their undefeated season with one game to go.
The Chargers went scoreless on three first quarter tries until Brady's interception set up their 3-0 lead.
With 5:13 left in the first quarter, the Patriots had the ball first and 10 on their own 20. Brady looked to the right sideline to Donte Stallworth but the ball hung up long enough for Quentin Jammer to get position for the interception. That gave the Chargers the ball on the Patriots 40. A facemask call on Vince Wilfork added on to a 5-yard Michael Turner run quickly moved things to the 20. Despite a 9-yard catch by Chris Chambers, San Diego's drive stalled and Nate Kaeding hit his 26-yard field goal attempt.
Meanwhile, New England was having an even more difficult time finding the end zone but as the second quarter opened it was third and 1 at the Chargers 16 thanks in large part to a Moss end around and nice change of direction by the wide receiver for 14 yards followed by a Faulk catch for another 14.
Maroney picked up the first down with an 8-yard run to the left sideline. After Faulk brought it to the 1 with a 7-yard catch, Maroney banged it in behind Stephen Neal for a 7-3 Patriots lead.
Rivers looked to Vincent Jackson on the Chargers next series and in five plays had his team first and goal on the Patriots 9. Jackson was good for catches of 15, 16 and 21 yards and was giving the Patriots secondary fits. But once down close to the goal line, and without Tomlinson on the field and Gates hobbled, Rivers' options were limited. The Chargers had to settle for three once again, a 23-yarder by Kaeding after gaining only 4 yards on three tries.
]()Later in the second quarter it was an Asante Samuel pick of Rivers that put New England in position to go up 14-6.
Rivers was working out of a deep hole due to a beautiful play by Kelley Washington on a Patriots punt. Washington leaped into the end zone and knocked the ball back into the playing field where Kyle Eckel downed it at the 4. Rivers managed to move his team up to the 17 on four plays but on the fifth, Samuel wrestled the ball away from Chris Chambers in the air and returned it to the 24.
The Patriots struck quickly. A 12-yard pass to Faulk went to the 12-yard line. Jabar Gaffney then found an opening in the middle of the field and Brady found him. Gaffney went in untouched.
Rivers followed up the interception in his previous series with another in his next. This one was pulled down by Ellis Hobbs on a first and 10 play from the San Diego 42. Rivers had just hit Chambers for 15 yards when he looked deep to Chambers again. Chambers had at least a step on Hobbs but the ball was short and Hobbs held up to make the catch. He fumbled on the return but James Sanders recovered to make it first and 10 on the 23 for New England.
The Chargers defense held for a three and out and San Diego took over after the punt with 1:46 left in the first half.
Darren Sproles lined up in the Chargers backfield as Norv Turner looked to give his team some speed at running back with Tomlinson out. The move paid off as Sproles ran for 8 yards and then broke off a 26-yarder to the Patriots 31. San Diego gained another 8 yards with a Gates catch and before the half ended, tacked on another three with a 40-yard field goal to make the score 14-9.
The Patriots received the second half kickoff. As the 2007 season went, this would normally be the time when Brady would drive his team downfield to build a comfortable lead. Instead, he threw his second interception on the day, a third and 12 pass from midfield that Drayton Florence caught as it ricocheted off Stallworth.
It was just the type of play the Chargers should have used to take the lead but amazingly all it amounted to was a 24-yard field goal. On third and 1 from the 4, the Chargers could have at least gained the yard and a new set of downs but Junior Seau broke through the line and dropped Turner for a 2-yard loss forcing Kaeding on the field.
Still, Chambers and Jackson were exploiting the Patriots coverage (11 catches for 148 yards between them to that point) and New England's 14-12 lead was on very shaky ground.
It got much shakier when Brady threw his third interception on the next drive. This one was the most costly of all because he had his team third and goal at the Chargers 2. To get there, Moss caught an 18-yard pass to the Chargers 31 and Maroney ran four of his six runs on the drive after that to the 10. A Welker catch for 8 yards set up the play on which Brady was picked. He had plenty of time, maybe too much, and his attempt to Ben Watson in the back of the end zone was easily intercepted by a leaping Antonio Cromartie.
The Chargers had the ball first and 10 on the 4 and got it out to the 20 but no further and punted.
The third quarter ended with the Patriots on offense, second and 6 at midfield.
]()Heath Evans got the call on first down and caught a 13-yard pass but Maroney was the key factor in the 67-yard scoring drive. He ran like a man possessed on five carries, the biggest a 20-yard run to the Chargers 20. He gained 14 more yards on three carries until Brady hit Welker from 6 yards out to make the score 21-12 with 12:15 left to play.
Rivers and his receivers continued to have success outside the red zone. On their next possession they went from their 16 into Patriots territory, as far as the 36 but no further. Rodney Harrison laid a hit on Rivers as he threw on third and 10 and the ball fell to the ground incomplete.
San Diego elected to punt despite needing two scores. The Patriots took over on their 13. Maroney continued his production with a 12-yard run on first down. The Chargers defense showed some life on the next play with Stephen Cooper and Igor Olshansky sharing an 8-yard sack. Faulk got 7 of those yards back and then on third and 11 made a diving catch to extend the drive with an 11-yard pickup and first down.
That last play by Faulk spelled doom for the Chargers. New England's drive started with over nine minutes left to play but by the two-minute warning they still had the ball third and 4 at the Chargers 25. Maroney smashed his way for 5 yards behind the left side of the Patriots line after that and all that was left was a few Brady kneel downs.
On to Arizona and Super Bowl XLII.