<
>

Pats put away Chargers for fourth Super Bowl berth in seven years

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- "Now we can look ahead.''

Bill Belichick, a coach of few words, said it all with that
sentence after his New England Patriots claimed the AFC
championship trophy.

Looking ahead means only one thing: A trip to the Super Bowl,
and a chance to give their perfect record a whole new meaning.

Despite a shaky Tom Brady, the Patriots were still too much for
the banged-up San Diego Chargers, pulling out a 21-12 victory
Sunday that sent them back to the NFL title game for the fourth
time in seven seasons.

"There was history on the line,'' Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "We recognize it, we acknowledge it.''

Brady made several stunningly poor throws that fluttered in the
wind, Randy Moss was a non-factor for the second straight game and
the highest-scoring team in NFL history sputtered all afternoon.
Instead, the Patriots (18-0) relied on Laurence Maroney's spins,
cuts and helmet-rattling runs.

With injured Chargers star LaDainian Tomlinson reduced to mostly
watching in a parka, the Patriots moved on to a Feb. 3 matchup in
Glendale, Ariz., against the New York Giants.

The Giants beat Green Bay 23-20 in overtime for the NFC
championship. New England closed out its regular season by beating
the Giants in a 38-35 thriller.

Yet for all the Brady Bunch has accomplished -- they're the only
team in NFL history to start out with 18 straight victories -- the
Patriots are well aware they must win that final game to avoid
being relegated to a footnote.

"We'll try to elevate our game for one last performance,'' said
Brady, MVP in two of the three Super Bowls he's won.

New England took care of the nuts and Bolts on a most chilly
day. The sellout crowd at Gillette Stadium chanted "Super Bowl!
Super Bowl!'' in the closing minutes, anticipating the Pats' first
appearance in the big game since the 2005.

"I think there will be a time to sit back and reflect,''
Belichick said. "We'll certainly enjoy this for a few days.''

Belichick's team eclipsed the 17-0 mark of the champion 1972
Miami Dolphins, and he'll soon try for his fourth NFL title. The
Patriots beat the Giants in a 38-35 thriller to close their regular
season; New England did not play the Packers.

Brady earned his 100th career victory and advanced without a
hint of girlfriend drama -- taking notes, Tony Romo?

A model of success in the late season, the Chargers (13-6) fell
short minus Tomlinson. He was hurt last week in the playoff upset
of the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts, and was mostly a
spectator as San Diego's eight-game winning streak ended.

Tomlinson carried on the first two San Diego plays, and did not
run it again because of a bad knee. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers hung in despite a torn ligament in his knee and star tight
end Antonio Gates did his best with a dislocated toe.

"From getting it reinjured the first play, I just knew I didn't
have it,'' Tomlinson said. "I'm kind of at a loss for words.''

San Diego coach Norv Turner needed to improvise without
Tomlinson, a two-time rushing champ. Even so, the Chargers never
could get into the end zone, and that cost them dearly.

"He really couldn't get started,'' Turner said. "He went and
tried to go and just didn't have the power to push off.''

Routed 38-14 at New England in September, the Chargers gave a
better performance. They trailed just 14-12 midway in the third
quarter this time, but Brady's 6-yard TD pass to Wes Welker early
in the fourth period was enough for New England.

Maroney ran for 122 yards to help hold the lead.

"It felt like everything was a struggle today,'' Brady said.
"We didn't perform the way I thought we were capable of.''

The Patriots seemed poised to pull away late in the third
quarter, but a terrible throw by Brady cost them. On third-and-goal
at the 2, Brady tried a touch pass over the middle that NFL
interceptions leader Antonio Cromartie easily picked off standing
on the New England logo in the end zone.

Nate Kaeding's fourth field goal, a 24-yarder midway through the
third period, pulled San Diego to 14-12. Too bad for the Chargers,
that was the story of their afternoon -- they'd drive close, only to
wind up settling for four kicks.

"I think we gave ourself a chance today,'' Rivers said. "It's
unfortunate we couldn't score in the red zone.''

It was 23 degrees at gametime, making for frosty breath trails on the
field and putting the Patriots cheerleaders in parkas. Most players
chose to ignore the cold and came out in short sleeves.

The brisk wind caused more noticeable problems. The goal posts
shook with every gust while passes and punts sailed in crazy
directions.

"I didn't think it was that bad,'' Belichick said. "It wasn't
a balmy day, I'm not saying that, but it wasn't bad.''

Normally solid in chilly weather, Brady took a while to adjust
to the conditions.

"Now we're going someplace warm, because I'm freezing my
you-know-what off,'' Brady said.

He badly missed his first two passes -- he threw
a total of two incompletions in 28 attempts last week in the win
over Jacksonville.

A few minutes later, Brady lofted a poor toss that Quentin Jammer intercepted. Belichick talked this week about the Chargers'
"ball disruption'' and turnovers certainly were a focus -- San
Diego led the league in takeaways, the Pats had the fewest
giveaways.

San Diego turned Jammer's pickoff into Kaeding's 26-yard field
goal with 2:55 left in the period for a 3-0 lead.

This wasn't what the home fans expected, and they grew silent as
the Chargers refused to back down, engaging in several post-play
scuffles with the heavily favored Patriots. Tomlinson stepped in to
calm hard-hitting former teammate Rodney Harrison after some early
roughhousing.

Maroney plunged in from the 1 barely over a minute into the
second quarter and, with very light flurries falling, the Patriots
were ahead for good.

Brady later hit Jabar Gaffney over the middle for a 12-yard TD
and a 14-6 lead, prompting several of the Patriots to celebrate.
Brady merely walked off the field with his head down.

"We're not going to get all carried away with the undefeated
season,'' linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "We did that in the regular
season.''

Notes
This marked the first time in more than 100 years that a
team in the four major pro sports opened a season with 18 straight
victories. The record for wins to start a season was set in 1884 by
St. Louis in baseball's Union Association, the Elias Sports Bureau
said. ... Brady threw a TD pass in his 14th straight postseason
game. ... Maroney has scored a touchdown in five straight games.
... The Chargers beat the Boston Patriots 51-10 for the 1963 AFL
championship at old Balboa Stadium. The Patriots played that season
at Fenway Park.