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Sunday, January 20, 2008
Championship Sunday: Super stage set for Giants, Patriots

ESPN.com

Greg M. Cooper-US Presswire

It's on to Super Bowl XLII for LB Tedy Bruschi and the Patriots, who defeated the Chargers 21-12 in the AFC title game. New England, which will be making its fourth Super Bowl appearance this decade, will take on the surprising Giants in Arizona. ZOOM GALLERIES: Chargers-Pats | Giants-Packers

Conference championship Observation Deck

By Mike Sando, ESPN.com (from Foxborough)

Key members of the San Diego Chargers limped around the visiting locker room at Gillette Stadium following their failed attempt to hand New England its first defeat of the season.

The Charger s had made the Patriots work for a 21-12 victory in the AFC title game, but San Diego never led during the final 43 minutes. The deepest team in the NFL finally ran out of manpower.

Philip Rivers

Paul Jasienski/Getty Images

Chargers QB Philip Rivers lost Sunday's game, but he won the respect of his teammates.

"I think the guys showed their toughness out there today," Chargers nose tackle Jamal Williams said.

The Chargers' locker room resembled an accident scene.

Quarterback Philip Rivers, playing despite partially torn knee ligaments, dragged his damaged and tightly wrapped right leg behind him.

Tight end Antonio Gates winced and grimaced with nearly every breath, favoring the mangled big toe on his left foot. He could barely walk, hunching over as he shuffled about.

Williams, double-teamed on 11 of 26 snaps despite a high ankle sprain, carefully maneuvered to his locker through a mass of reporters, folding chairs and duffel bags.

"My hat's off to our quarterback," Williams said. "You just don't understand the things he is going through. And our tight end, a dislocated toe and you have to pivot, cut and all that stuff. It's tough, man.

"You have no choice but to go out and play for your teammates. That's how tight we are."

NFL rushing champion LaDainian Tomlinson started the game for San Diego despite a knee injury, but he did not last long. Team officials told reporters during the game that Tomlinson was capable of returning despite knee soreness. After the game, Tomlinson said he knew right away that he could not play because he lacked explosiveness.

"A lot of guys shouldn't have been out there today," said safety Clinton Hart, who left the game with an injury. "They put it on the line because they knew what was at stake, and we appreciate that."

Here are a few other observations from Sunday's conference championship games:

1. Mistake-free Manning

Those Citizen Eco-Drive watch commercials describing Eli Manning as "unstoppable" don't appear so silly now that the Giants are bound for Super Bowl XLII.

Eli Manning

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Eli Manning, turnover-prone in the regular season, has yet to throw an INT in three playoff games.

Eleven of the 12 playoff teams this season tossed interceptions. The New York Giants, led by the suddenly efficient Manning, have yet to suffer a single pick during the postseason.

New England, San Diego, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville have tossed three interceptions apiece during the playoffs. Indianapolis, Green Bay, Washington, Seattle and Tampa Bay tossed two before being eliminated. Dallas and Tennessee tossed one interception apiece before elimination.

Manning, who passed for 254 yards during the Giants' 23-20 overtime victory at Green Bay, has gone three consecutive games without an interception for the second time in his career. He avoided interceptions during the second, third and fourth games of the 2005 season.

This season, Manning had suffered eight interceptions during a five-game stretch heading into a 38-35 defeat to New England in the final regular-season game. Manning also averaged 7.8 yards per pass attempt in that game, matching a season high.

2. Third-and-no chance

Green Bay finished the regular season with the NFL's eighth-best conversion rate on third down, but the Packers failed on nine of 10 chances against the Giants.

Their inability to establish a running game put quarterback Brett Favre in too many third-and-long situations. And while the Packers' line has played well this season, the team's guards aren't particularly strong in protection. That's why Green Bay needed to sustain its recent production on the ground.

Favre faced third-and-8 or longer nine times. He avoided turnovers on those plays, only to make poor decisions on first- and second-down plays that resulted in interceptions.

3. Hitting 'em on the nose

The New England-San Diego game featured two of the NFL's more accomplished nose tackles. New England's Vince Wilfork and San Diego's Williams have commanded double-team blocking throughout much of their careers, but opponents have had less trouble with Williams since he suffered an ankle injury.

The Chargers double-teamed Wilfork 25 times in 48 snaps. They doubled Wilfork on eight of 16 first-down running plays. San Diego averaged 4.1 yards on these rushes, compared to 3.6 yards per first-down carry when they blocked him with one lineman.

San Diego was also more productive on first-down pass plays when doubling Wilfork.

The Patriots double-teamed Williams 11 times in 26 snaps, but never on a first-down running play. New England averaged 6 yards per carry on first down when single-blocking Williams.

Williams was on the sideline for at least 10 consecutive plays beginning late in the third quarter. He missed all of the Patriots' eight-play, 67-yard touchdown drive that gave them a 21-12 lead.

"They were trying to make sure they had a rotation going on out there," Williams said. "It was tough playing with the high ankle sprain, so they were like, 'OK, let's try to make sure we keep you fresh.' "

4. Hard feelings for Hardwick

Chargers center Nick Hardwick accused Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour of dirty tactics during a postgame harangue.

"There are 10 [expletive] good players on that team, but Richard Seymour is a dirty, cheap, little pompous [expletive]," Hardwick told a Boston Herald reporter. "They've got 10 great players on that team and when Jarvis Green comes on the field, they've got 11 great players who compete how you're supposed to play.

"But Richard Seymour is the biggest [expletive] I've ever played."

Hardwick accused Seymour of stomping on feet during pileups, slapping linemen on the head and punching them in the back.

"He plays like a punk," Hardwick said.

Seymour will presumably address the issue during the buildup to Super Bowl XLII.

Mike Sando's game balls

Game 1: New England 21, San Diego 12

Maroney

• Offense:Running backs Laurence Maroney (122 yards rushing) and Kevin Faulk (82 yards receiving) picked up the slack for New England's struggling vertical pass game. Running mostly from power formations with two and even three tight ends, Maroney ripped off gains of 18, 11, 20 and 12 yards in the second half.

New England struggled on third down until the fourth quarter, when the Patriots converted four in a row. Faulk caught passes for 11 and 14 yards on the first two conversions. Maroney ran for 5-yard gains on the final two. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers suffered through a poor statistical performance, but teammates said his gutsy play proved to be inspirational. Playing on two bad knees, Rivers struggled to scramble and he sometimes forced passes. But he went down swinging. An 18-yard strike to Vincent Jackson on third-and-10 gave the Chargers life in the fourth quarter.

Seau

• Defense: Patriots linebacker Junior Seau made one of the more clutch tackles of the game, stopping Michael Turner for a 2-yard loss on third-and-1 from the New England 4. The Patriots were protecting a 14-9 lead in the third quarter when Seau sliced through to make the tackle. The Chargers settled for a field goal, their third red zone trip without a touchdown.

San Diego defensive backs Quentin Jammer, Antonio Cromartie and Drayton Florence left Brady with a season-high three interceptions. Brady had thrown 62 touchdowns in the red zone without an interception when Cromartie picked off a pass intended for tight end Ben Watson. Cromartie finished the season with 11 interceptions, including four combined against Indy's Peyton Manning (three) and Brady (one).

• Special teams: Patriots receiver Kelley Washington helped New England take control in the second quarter with a play that shifted field position. Washington, a force on New England's punt-cover team, leaped over the goal line to bat the ball back to fullback Kyle Eckel, who downed it at the San Diego 4. The Patriots then forced a turnover before scoring on a short field to take a 14-6 lead. Washington helped the Patriots limit Darren Sproles to a 5.3-yard average on three punt returns.

Game 2: N.Y. Giants 23, Green Bay 20 (OT)

Burress

• Offense: Giants receiver Plaxico Burress owned his matchup with Packers cornerback Al Harris, catching 11 passes for 154 yards. Burress played hurt most of the season, but he's been healthier in recent weeks, which has been a huge plus for the Giants. Burress is also benefiting from Eli Manning's improved play.

Manning made it through another playoff game without a turnover. His overall stats weren't outstanding, but avoiding mistakes has been good enough for the Giants at times. Manning converted a third-and-10 play with a 19-yard pass to Burress. He completed another pass for 9 yards on third-and-15, setting up a manageable fourth-down conversion as the Giants moved toward a field goal try midway through the fourth quarter.

Packers receiver Donald Driver hadn't caught a touchdown pass since the third week of the regular season. He caught five passes for 141 yards against the Giants, none bigger than his 90-yard scoring reception to give Green Bay its first lead, 7-6.

• Defense: Giants cornerback Corey Webster made huge plays for New York. Webster registered two tackles for losses before picking off Brett Favre in overtime to set up the winning field goal. A promising fourth-quarter Packers drive ended with a field goal after Webster tackled Ryan Grant for a 7-yard loss on third-and-3.

Grant made a heads-up defensive play for the Packers when he stripped the ball from Giants cornerback R.W. McQuarters following a fourth-quarter interception. Tackle Mark Tauscher recovered for the Packers, who kicked the tying field goal four plays later.

• Special teams: Tramon Williams' 49-yard punt return put Green Bay in position to score the go-ahead touchdown midway through the third quarter. Williams also recovered a muffed kickoff return by teammate Koren Robinson.

Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes missed twice in the fourth quarter, but a high snap contributed to one miss, and weather conditions were difficult. Tynes' winning 47-yarder in overtime more than atoned.

Writer's bloc

• Len Pasquarelli: Everyone is awed by the Patriots' passing game, but it was the running game that proved to be the difference in the AFC title game.

• Len Pasquarelli: The Chargers' offense had plenty of chances to reach the end zone, but the Patriots rose to the test when needed.

• Gene Wojciechowski: Win Super Bowl XLII -- and they will -- and the Patriots will have no peer, no point of comparison.

• John Clayton: Plaxico Burress was unstoppable, Eli Manning was efficient and the Giants fought through adversity to beat the Packers.

• Jeffri Chadiha: With one ill-advised pass by Brett Favre, the Packers' dream season came to a sudden and crushing halt.

Loose ends

• Scouts Inc.'s Buzz

Patriots 21, Chargers 12: Despite the unforeseen interceptions by Tom Brady, New England is going to the Super Bowl. The respective play of each red-zone offense told the story in this game; the Patriots scored touchdowns, while the Chargers kicked field goals near the goal line. -- Matt Williamson

Giants 23, Packers 20 (OT): With RB Brandon Jacobs averaging around 3 yards per carry, the Giants started using his backup, Ahmad Bradshaw, more in the fourth quarter. Bradshaw's ability to cut back against the grain on the zone stretch play gave the offense a much-needed spark. -- Doug Kretz

• Experts' picks: How did we do? Sunday Countdown | ESPN.com

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