]()Despite the Chargers defense giving its offense good field position throughout, the Patriots defense pulled off one of its finest performances in New England history, giving Tom Brady a chance to win the game in the end. Of course he did, driving his team downfield late in the fourth quarter for the go-ahead and winning field goal.
LaDainian Tomlinson did everything he could to give his team the win, running for 123 yards on 23 carries and 2 touchdowns and catching two balls for another 64 yards, but it wasn't enough. The Patriots defense held young Philip Rivers to 14 of 32 passing for 230 yards and an interception and made the stops when they were most needed along with coming up with four turnovers.
Unable to run for most of the second half, it was all Brady and the passing game. His numbers weren't eye-popping but his composure under intense pressure was magnificent. The pressure forced three interceptions; the composure allowed for 280 yards and 2 touchdowns (27 of 51 passing).
The team that is the Patriots sent a message to the NFL: It's not over until we say it's over.
Maybe it was a just a mix-up in timing but when Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots were announced by the Qualcomm Stadium public address announcer, no Patriots came running onto the field. Instead, it wasn't until the Chargers were announced that New England came out en masse. By that time, Charger fans didn't know whether to cheer their own team or boo the Patriots.
It took away that initial rush for the home team fans, and, if it was intentional, it was yet another brilliant move in a career full of them for Belichick.
Early field position was advantage San Diego. Its first drive made it into Patriots territory before a punt. New England followed by punting after only three plays that started at the 10-yard line, giving the Chargers good position at midfield for their second possession. A drop by Eric Parker and good coverage by New England on third and 10 forced San Diego to punt for the second time, but like their first series, the Patriots were starting deep in their own territory.
]()Once again, the Chargers defense forced a three and out for New England but this time, punter Todd Sauerbrun got off a boomer that put San Diego back at its 35-yard line.
A 15-yard run on first down by Tomlinson quickly got his team to midfield. Three plays later Parker caught a pass and evaded Ellis Hobb's tackle try, turning it into a 21-yard pick-up, but then slipped on a reverse carry on the next play for a loss of 7. San Diego wound up going for it on fourth and 11 from its own 30 with disasterous results. Rivers dropped back and his pocket immediately caved in with Mike Vrabel getting a piece of Rivers and the ball and Tully Banta-Cain making the fumble recovery.
It was just what New England needed, finally giving them decent starting position at the Chargers 35. Now Brady began to find Troy Brown, hitting him on completions of 9 and 7 yards while Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk did just enough on the ground for the Patriots to pick up a couple first downs. The drive ended at the Chargers 32 with a Stephen Gostkowski 50-yard field goal to give New England a 3-0 lead as the first quarter neared an end.
San Diego was right back in Patriots territory as the second quarter opened. After Michael Turner returned Gostkowski's kickoff to the 39, Tomlinson knocked off a 15-yard run on first down. The Chargers were first and 10 at the Patriots 47 as the game resumed. Once again, however, the Patriots defense refused to break against the San Diego offensive pressure. Vrabel had an outstanding open field tackle on Tomlinson to limit a catch that could have gone for big yards to a 6-yard gain and San Diego punted.
That pressure continued with New England punting from its own 15 after three plays. Parker returned it 13 yards to the Patriots 48; another test for the Patriots defense loomed.
It looked like New England would pass muster again after forcing a fourth and 1. But the Chargers went for it and Turner busted a 17-yard gain off left tackle to the Patriots 22. On the next play Rivers looked down the seam to Gates and connected but as the big tight end went down, he lost the ball and New England recovered at the 2-yard line. The Chargers challenged the call of a fumble and it was ruled Gates never had possession; a huge break for the Chargers.
Rivers went back to Gates on the next play for a gain of 9 and then kept for the first down and a gain of 2. Neal was the recipient of Rivers' next pass, a 9-yarder to the 2. That's where Tomlinson took it in from, giving his Chargers a 7-3 lead with 7:19 left in the first half.
A San Diego facemask on the following kickoff gave New England first and 10 at its own 43. Brady started the drive out on a high note hitting Daniel Graham for 19 yards but then threw right into the arms of Donnie Edwards on the next play intended for Ben Watson and the Chargers took over.
The turnover did no immediate damage as Artrell Hawkins nailed Rivers on a safety blitz for a loss of 11 yards on third down and the Patriots got the ball right back after three plays.
Meanwhile, San Diego's defense continued giving Brady and his offense little wiggle room and was back in business after another Patriot three and out.
With 66 rushing yards already in the game, Tomlinson was about to make an even bigger impact. His first down run was for 11 yards followed by a 2-yarder. Then, Rivers dumped off a little screen pass to LT and he took over, going 58 yards to the Patriots 6. Turner carried it in on the next play for a 14-3 Chargers lead near the two-minute warning.
Undaunted, New England looked impressive as it ended the first half with a touchdown scoring drive. Brady masterfully drove down the field, hitting Jabar Gaffney for completions of 17, 15, 7 and the scoring pass from 6 yards out. Reche Caldwell chipped in with a 10-yard catch on third and 5 late in the drive along with two early Kevin Faulk runs for 7 yards each.
Down 14-10, New England received the second half opening kickoff and continued to face a tough Chargers defense. Not only did the Patriots have to punt after its first possession, but on its second, Brady threw his second interception of the day, a third and 10 pass from his own 32 right into Drayton Florence's hands.
The turnover should have meant points for San Diego but a holding call on guard Mike Goff hurt its chances and then a James Sanders sack on third and 17 actually forced the Chargers to punt.
The punt was a good one, pinning New England on its own 2. A second down pass to Brown netted 12 yards and gave Brady breathing room out to the 14. After a 6-yard completion to Faulk, the drive stalled and Sauerbrun came on to punt.
Parker was deep for San Diego and had plenty of room to field the kick. Somehow, he lost sight of it and before he could pick it up, Antwain Spann rammed him off the ball. In the mad scramble that ensued, David Thomas came up with the ball and New England was first and 10 at the Chargers 31 instead of back on defense.
A Logan Mankins offensive pass interference call on second down set up a second and 20. Brown caught a pass for 7 yards bringing up third and 13. Brady dropped back and tried to buy time but held on just long enough to be hit by Shaun Phillips. That would have essentially ended the drive but Florence was called for head butting a Patriot and the personal foul gave New England 15 yards and a first down.
Despite the break, the Patriots couldn't cash in for six, instead settling for a 34-yard Gostkowski field goal to close within one at 14-13.
Rosevelt Colvin closed out the third quarter with an athletic interception of Rivers. The Chargers were keeping the pressure on the Patriots defense as it had all day. Rivers was first and 10 at the New England 37 and tried to flip a little rainbow to Tomlinson over the head of Colvin. But Colvin arched backwards and made an over-the-shoulder catch for the pick.
Brady's drive that followed looked hopeful when he hit Gaffney for 15 yards on second down to the Chargers 49. Caldwell and Brown caught two more passes but for only 4 yards each and Brady's third down pass was incomplete forcing the punt.
Even though the Chargers began the drive at the 14 after fair-catching Sauerbrun's kick, their explosive offense found its rhythm. Gates, who had been relatively quiet up to this point, caught two balls for 19 and 12 yards but the big play was a 31-yard pass to Vincent Jackson down to the Patriots 3. Tomlinson ran it in on the next play for a 21-13 Chargers lead with 8:35 left to play.
Needless to say, New England needed a score. Gaffney continued his strong game (10 catches, 103 yards) with a catch for 17 yards to the Chargers 46. On first and 10, Faulk was good for a 5-yard reception. But Brady came up empty on second down and had to run for cover on third for no gain. Now with a fourth and 5 from the 41, the Patriots had to go for it. Brady threw down the middle and for an instant it looked like the Patriots season might come to an end when Morton McCree of the Chargers came up with the ball. During his return, he was hit by the ever-present Brown and lost it with Caldwell recovering at the 32. Amazingly, the Patriots had the ball back after briefly losing it, first and 10.
It was all Brady needed. If there's anyone who knows not to squander a break, it's No. 12. His 9-yard pass to Watson put the ball at the 4. From there, he play-actioned to Dillon, drew in what seemed the entire San Diego defense and then floated a pass to a wide open Caldwell for the score.
Down by two, Faulk lined up next to Brady for the two-point conversion, took the direct snap and found his way into the end zone to tie the game at 21.
The Patriots defense backed up the offense's effort with a three and out stop that gave Brady the ball back with 3:30 left to play and he wasted no time hitting Graham for 19 yards out to the New England 34. Two incompletes brought up third and 10. Brady had time and fired downfield to Caldwell streaking down the right sideline. He connected with Caldwell going out of bounds at the Chargers 17 for a 49-yard bomb.
Within field goal range, now it was clock management time. The Chargers were forced to burn their last timeout and play hit the two-minute warning. When it resumed, New England was third and 5 from the 12. Dillon carried for a loss of 1 but it allowed the Patriots to run down the clock to 1:12.
Gostkowski came on for a 31-yard attempt and the rookie nailed it, giving New England the lead with now 1:10 left to play and San Diego with no timeouts.
San Diego went into hurry-up and New England went into prevent. Rivers made his way downfield with passes to Gates for a combined 18 yards. He then hit Parker for 21 yards to the 36 where Rivers spiked the ball to stop the clock. The problem for San Diego was none of the plays prior to the spike went out of bounds and the clock kept ticking. It came down to a 54-yard field goal for the Chargers Nate Kaeding. As Patriots fans know, those heroics are reserved for the silver and blue. The kick was short.
New England was on to the AFC Championship and the Indianapolis Colts.