Sunday, January 20, 2008

Perfect Pats are one step away

Laurence Maroney ran for 122 yards and a touchdown as New England disposed of a banged-up San Diego team, 21-12, in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium.

With the win, the Pats became the first 18-0 team in NFL history and are now just one step away from completing the second perfect season in the Super Bowl era. The 1972 Miami Dolphins finished their perfect season at 17-0.

Tom Brady completed 22-of-33 passes for 209 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions for New England, which won its fourth AFC title in seven years and moved on to face either the Green Bay Packers or New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII set for February 3 in Glendale, Arizona.

"There are special guys on this team who stepped up when they had to," Brady said. "Our goals are still ahead of us. Now we're going someplace warm because I'm freezing my you-know-what off."

Wes Welker caught seven passes for 56 yards and a TD, and Kevin Faulk had eight receptions for 82 yards out of the backfield.

"I think the difference was the players," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said on the field after accepting the Lamar Hunt trophy. "These guys played great. They played great all year and played great today. I'm really lucky to coach this team."

The Chargers (13-6), who were playing in their first AFC title game since the 1994 season, hung tough despite the fact three key playmakers -- quarterback Philip Rivers, running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates -- were nursing significant injuries.

Tomlinson, who was hampered by a balky left knee, left after carrying the ball just two times for five yards on the team's first drive but Rivers, who had a sprained knee, and Gates, who was bogged down with a dislocated toe, both played admirably for San Diego.

Rivers finished 19-of-37 for 211 yards and two interceptions, while Gates caught two balls for 17 yards.

Nate Kaeding had four field goals for the Chargers, while Vincent Jackson finished with six receptions for 93 yards and Chris Chambers added seven catches for 90 yards.

The Chargers were able to force turnovers in the game and move the ball but continually settled for field goals, while New England found the end zone.

"We did have chances down in there and we missed a couple of opportunities," Chargers coach Norv Turner said. "No question that was a big part of this game."

The Patriots held a slim two-point lead early in the fourth quarter when they finally carved out some breathing room. With Brady suffering a rare off day, New England went to Maroney on the ground and in the short passing game. The former first-round pick fueled an eight-play, 67-yard drive with a 20-yard run and a nine-yard screen. Brady then found Welker for a six-yard TD toss to give New England a 21-12 edge with 12:15 remaining in the game.

San Diego had one last chance to make things tight and drove to the Patriots' 36-yard line with just over nine minutes to go but, facing a fourth-and-10, Turner decided to punt.

New England and Maroney then siphoned the final 9:13 off the clock to secure things.

"To all you fans, 18-0. I'm so happy we could win this at home with all of you," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. It's a great tribute to coach Belichick and his staff and players who did what had never been done before."

The Chargers stunned the crowd and drew first blood thanks to their defense. Brady tried throwing a back shoulder fade to Donte Stallworth but Quentin Jammer played the ball beautifully and picked it off at the New England 40- yard line. Despite the great field position and a 15-yard face mask penalty on Pats defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, San Diego flamed out at the eight-yard line when Rivers failed to hook up with Chambers in the back of the end zone. The Chargers then settled for a 26-yard Kaeding field goal and a 3-0 lead with 2:55 left in the opening quarter.

The Patriots finally got their explosive offense in gear on the ensuing possession. Randy Moss highlighted a 10-play, 65-yard drive with a 14-yard reverse and Maroney capped it by plunging in from a yard out to make it a 7-3 game with 13:48 left before halftime.

San Diego answered by taking advantage of soft coverage in the New England secondary. Rivers found Jackson on gains of 15 and 21 yards and again had the Chargers inside the 10-yard line, But, the San Diego QB checked off to Chambers underneath on a third-and-goal play from the eight and San Diego had to settle for another Kaeding field goal, this one a 23-yarder with 9:14 remaining in the half.

The Pats got back on the board with the help of a big play on defense. Rivers was hurried by Mike Vrabel and lofted a pass over the middle, but Asante Samuel jumped the throw and outwrestled Chambers for the ball, returning it 10 yards to the San Diego 24. Two plays later, Brady found a wide-open Jabar Gaffney underneath on a square-in and the former Florida star did the rest, scampering into the end zone for a 12-yard TD to give New England a 14-6 advantage with 3:51 on the clock.

The Chargers continued to battle and drew within five points, 14-9, when Kaeding booted his third field goal of the half, a 40-yard kick with just eight seconds remaining in the second quarter.

The San Diego defense came up big again early in the third quarter. Brady tried to hit Stallworth over the middle but the ball bounced off his right hand and Drayton Florence was there to intercept it. The cornerback returned it to the Pats 49 and Rivers went back to work. He drove the Chargers inside the 10 again but Michael Turner was stuffed for a two-yard loss by former San Diego star Junior Seau on a third-and-one play from the Pats four. Kaeding came on again and connected on a 24-yard field goal to make it a 14-12 game with 8:36 left in the third quarter.
The New England offense looked like it was about to answer and drove inside the San Diego five thanks to a heavy dose of Maroney. But, the Chargers defense rose up and intercepted Brady for the third time. On third-and-goal from the San Diego two, Brady forced the ball to Moss and Antonio Cromartie snagged it out of the air, killing the Pats' scoring opportunity.

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