FOXBOROUGH - Confetti fell on the frigid field, U2 blared through the speakers, and the Patriots had returned to their rightful place atop the American Football Conference. It was a perfect celebration for a perfect team.
End up short of the Super Bowl? The Patriots would not, not this year.
After a two-season absence, the ultimate one-game-at-a-time team is heading to Glendale, Ariz., for the NFL’s ultimate game, Super Bowl XLII, with only the New York Giants able to prevent pigskin perfection and a place in pro football history.
The Patriots (18-0) advanced to the Super Bowl for the fourth time since 2001 with a hard-fought and frosty 21-12 victory over the San Diego Chargers yesterday at Gillette Stadium, turning a cold day in Foxborough into a coronation.
Playoff runs that ended in disappointment in Denver two seasons ago and in anguish in Indianapolis in this game last season seemed like bad dreams.
”All we kept stressing to one another was, `Not this year, not this year,”’ said cornerback Ellis Hobbs. “To come so far and be in the position we were in and to let it slip out, you just hear that echoing throughout the locker room and everyone kept saying it, coaches, this and that, `Not this year.’ We just took it out on the field and we made it come to fruition.”
While it was the Patriots offense that earned accolades and awe this season, it was a familiar formula of stingy defense and timely stops that propelled the Patriots to another AFC title. Three times San Diego advanced inside the New England 10-yard line and three times it had to settle for field goals.
The Chargers never found the end zone, getting four field goals from Nate Kaeding (26, 23, 40, and 24 yards), as New England’s stellar red zone defense mitigated the Chargers’ opportunistic ways.
After picking off Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning two times last week, the Chargers, who led the NFL in interceptions during the regular season with 30, intercepted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (22 of 33 for 209 yards and two touchdowns) three times, the last of which by Antonio Cromartie in the end zone on third and goal from the 2 with 3:05 left in the third quarter was shades of the debacle in Denver.
But aided by running back Laurence Maroney, who rushed for 122 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries, Brady got another chance in the red zone and found the end zone this time, connecting with Wes Welker on a 6-yard pass with 12:15 to go in the game.
Trailing by 9 with 9:21 to go, Chargers coach Norv Turner elected to punt from the Patriots’ 36. San Diego never saw the ball again, as Maroney, who had 19 carries for 106 yards in the second half, grounded out the game and veteran running back Kevin Faulk came up with a pair of huge third-down catches to help the Patriots play keep away.
”I think there are special guys on this team that have stepped up all season when we need to,” said Brady. “This last drive really signified what this team is all about. The defense played great and held them to field goals in the red zone, and then Kevin Faulk making those NFL Plays of the Week.”
Despite playing most of the game without star running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who revealed after the game he had injured the medial collateral ligament in his left knee, with a gimpy Philip Rivers (partially torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee) at quarterback and tight end Antonio Gates (dislocated toe) a shell of his Pro Bowl self, San Diego trailed, 14-12, at the start of the fourth quarter.
San Diego used its turnovers to score points, just not enough. The first San Diego field goal, which gave it a 3-0 lead, came after Quentin Jammer intercepted Brady at the New England 40 with 5:13 left in the first quarter. The final field goal was set up when Drayton Florence snared a pass that deflected off the hands of Donte’ Stallworth at the San Diego 44 with 12:32 left in the third quarter.
However, on third and 1 from the 4, Junior Seau knifed into the backfield to stop Michael Turner for a 2-yard loss, forcing the Chargers to settle for a Kaeding kick and a 2-point Patriots lead (14-12) with 8:36 left in the third.
”Yeah, it was probably our turn to win a game,” said linebacker Mike Vrabel. “I think that was the Patriots of old where you could hang around and make big plays and make plays when it counted and the defense would play well in the red zone and force them to kick field goals.”
The defense also forced Rivers, who limped his way to completing 19 of 37 passes for 211 yards, into interceptions on back-to-back possessions late in the second quarter. On second and 8 from the San Diego 17, Asante Samuel came up with his fifth career playoff interception, taking the ball away from Chargers receiver Chris Chambers at the San Diego 34.
Two plays later, Brady found Jabar Gaffney for a 12-yard touchdown and a 14-6 lead. Then Hobbs got into the act, intercepting a deep ball from Rivers that languished in the wind to give the Patriots the ball back with 2:24 left. But the San Diego defense clamped down, forcing a punt, and the Chargers trailed, 14-9, at the half after Kaeding’s third field goal.
But the desert was the Patriots’ destiny this season.
After Maroney picked up the final first down of the game, Tedy Bruschi, who is headed to his fifth Super Bowl, gave coach Bill Belichick a big bear hug.
”You sort of can’t believe you’re going again,” said Bruschi. “I’ve been so fortunate in my career. It’s not just given to people, you have to earn it to get to the Super Bowl. To get there again, it’s just as special as every one of them. You can’t ask me which one feels better because each one is its own entity and each one feels special.”
”All the credit goes to the players,” said Belichick. “These guys played great. They played great all year and they played great today. I’m really lucky to coach this team.”