The New England Patriots did not play their best game but they held off the resilient San Diego Chargers to win the AFC Championship, 21-12. San Diego kept the game close even though several of their key offensive players battled injuries; quarterback Philip Rivers (19-37, 211 yards, 0 touchdowns, two interceptions) and tight end Antonio Gates (two receptions for 17 yards) went the whole way but running back LaDainian Tomlinson made only a cameo appearance before his knee injury forced him to be a spectator. Meanwhile, New England quarterback Tom Brady completed 22 of 33 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns but he also had three interceptions and did not consistently display the pinpoint accuracy that enabled him to set the all-time playoff record for single-game completion percentage against Jacksonville last week. His longest completion went for just 18 yards--and that was Randy Moss' only catch. With their deep passing game stymied, the Patriots turned to their running game and Laurence Maroney delivered, gaining 106 of his 122 yards in the second half. As CBS' Phil Simms noted during the telecast, the Patriots literally have five or six different offenses, so if a team stops one of them then Coach Bill Belichick just switches to another one; few defenses are equipped mentally or physically to deal with everything that the Patriots can do in terms of their different personnel groups, clever play calling and good execution.
Chapter 18 of the Patriots' pursuit of perfection could be titled "All's Well That Ends Well." It certainly did not start off well for the Patriots: they were forced to punt on their first two possessions and Brady threw an interception the third time they had the ball. The Chargers converted that opportunity into a field goal to take an early 3-0 lead. New England answered that score with a 65 yard touchdown drive. The big difference in the game is that the Patriots converted most of their red zone opportunities into touchdowns but the Chargers had to settle for field goals. The Patriots led 14-9 at halftime.
The Chargers intercepted Brady on the Patriots' opening drive in the third quarter but again were only able to convert that opportunity into three points. The Patriots then drove all the way to the San Diego 2 yard line only to come up empty after yet another Brady interception, his first one in the red zone since New England's playoff loss to Denver two years ago. San Diego went three and out after that and the Patriots took a two score lead after an eight play, 67 yard drive resulted in a six yard Brady to Wes Welker touchdown pass. A little over 12 minutes remained in the game but for all intents and purposes it was over because it was obvious that the Chargers could not score a touchdown against the Patriots and there was not enough time left for them to kick enough field goals to overcome a 21-12 deficit (assuming that they could stop New England after each score). The Chargers' next drive stalled at the New England 36 and the Patriots took possession with 9:13 left in the game. Remarkably, San Diego never got the ball back because New England drained all of the remaining time off of the clock, alternating Maroney runs with some key catches by underrated running back Kevin Faulk. The Patriots could have scored more points had they wanted to but instead ended the game with a couple kneeldowns.
The uninitiated may downplay New England's win by citing San Diego's injuries, Brady's subpar statistics or the relative closeness of the final score but this was an impressive victory by a great team: most teams, even the very good ones, have a core set of things that they do well and if they are not able to do those things well then they will lose. For most of this season, the Patriots have featured a wide open, high scoring passing game, they have not run the ball that well and their red zone defense has been sporadic. In the second half against the Chargers, the Patriots changed their game plan and personnel groupings, abandoning the deep passing game in favor of multiple tight end formations out of which they ran the ball and threw short passes. They made some mistakes and Brady was not as accurate as usual but when they did not turn the ball over they scored touchdowns. On defense, the Patriots compensated for the offense's reduced production with great performances in the red zone. Yes, the Chargers were banged up at key positions but they are still a talented team--one that was good enough to defeat the defending Super Bowl champions on their home field last week. Even very good teams sometimes lose when they have off games but that is one of the things that makes this Patriots' team so special: they find a way to win no matter what. They may not always play perfectly but they are one win away from achieving perfection.