by Scott Benson
The still-perfect Patriots are going to their fourth Super Bowl in seven years.
And they did it with defense and the running game – after a season in which Tom Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker and others took their fast-break, spread-em-out passing game to dizzying new heights with a high-tech offense straight out of the Jetsons, it was old fashioned, frozen-field grit with a balled fist that finally put them over the top.
New England will move on to Glendale, AZ for Super Bowl XLII, where they will meet again the surprising New York Giants, who nearly ended New England’s undefeated season in December, and who yesterday became the first NFC team ever win three road games to advance to the league championship.
Another Manning standing between the Patriots and a championship. You CANNOT make this stuff up. Some thoughts:
*Three times the limping San Diego Chargers took the ball inside New England’s ten yard line and three times they were turned away without a touchdown (a fourth drive inside the Patriots 25 yielded the same result). Ballgame.
*They allowed San Diego to move the ball freely at times, largely through mid-range completions to Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson, as the Chargers nearly matched the Patriots in total yardage though both Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates were gimpy, and LaDainian Tomlinson was relegated to the sidelines.
*But the old guard held fast – Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau both made critical plays in the red zone (and elsewhere) and Mike Vrabel helped crumble the pocket with an edge rush that put him in the Chargers backfield as often as Tomlinson stand-in Michael Turner. Richard Seymour, Jarvis Green and mates caused a ruckus whenever their backs were pinned to the wall. This one was won with defense, a welcome reminder of Foxboroughs Past.
*Bruschi has evidently traveled back in time, regaining the mastery of his youth for this championship run. Each game he gets stronger.
*Laurence Maroney had just thrown himself violently into, and through, a pile defending the San Diego end zone, scoring a touchdown in his fifth straight game, most in exactly this same manner. “Better than Dillon!” I blurted to my wife. I don’t know where that came from, but now that it’s out there, Maroney’s performance over the last month is as good as any Belichick team has gotten. I happily acknowledge vis a vis Maroney that I have never been more horribly wrong about anything.
*He’s got a real notch on his belt now. With nearly five yards a carry (25-122), he and his blockers won an AFC Championship Game for the Patriots. When New England finally decided that its own downfield passing game had become perhaps the greatest threat to its perfect record, it was up to Maroney and Kevin Faulk to give the Pats enough offense to win. When the Patriots, stupified alternately by wind and the Chargers secondary, decided to contract their spread formations and go with two and three tight ends, and Maroney began to spring into the Chargers secondary, New England finally had the right offense to compliment what deserved to be a championship defensive effort.
*And Faulk – how about the guy once known for his fumbles winning the game with his hands? Eight catches as the go-to-guy, some of which demanded last-second dexterity from Faulk’s digits, and various other body parts (always seemed to be on third down too). His biggest was a diving third down catch and roll on the clinching drive. In his post-game remarks, Boomer Esiason imagined a future “Kevin Faulk Day” at Gillette. I thought those were most appropriate remarks, given the day’s – and the career’s – events.
*Maybe the highest point of the season was a nine minute, eighteen second, 66 yard drive that yielded no points. They just happened to be the final nine minutes and eighteen seconds of the game, with the Chargers trailing by nine and desperate for two more possessions. Yet first down after first down after first down rained down on their gradually slumping shoulders. The Pats barely concealed their sh**-eating grins in the huddle.
*Three interceptions in a championship game for Tom Brady. The worst was when he threw a meek red zone floater that was easily grabbed by Antonio Cromartie. The MVP was a most vexed person whenever he tried to go upfield to Moss and Donte Stallworth, thanks to Cromartie (who was rarely challenged) and Quentin Jammer (who was, but survived and prospered). If the defense and/or running game had not stepped forward exactly as they did yesterday, there’s no telling what would have happened.
*But as his performance is discussed in the days ahead, and it will be, note the pitch to Jabar Gaffney that converted an Asante Samuel interception and gave the Pats a halftime lead. Note the connection with Welker for the touchdown that gave the Patriots a two-score, fourth quarter lead. Note the symbiosis with Faulk throughout. The Patriots eventually had too many playmakers for the Chargers to cover, and Brady eventually converted, even on one of his toughest days.
*A hellified week for Randy Moss got no better yesterday, at least as far as the stat sheet says. But he did make first downs on his only two touches of the day, and he is going to the first Super Bowl of his always controversial career. Get ready for two weeks of wall-to-wall Moss as the media looks to fill time before the game. They’ll probably start with his playoff ‘slump’ (2 catches for 32 yards in two games) but God knows they won’t end there.
*To me, I’m not as shocked by Brady’s and Moss’s muted performances as I am by the fact that Philip Rivers leaves town as a respected rival. He didn’t get the Chargers in the end zone, and he did throw two picks, but that was still a pretty ballsy game. All the way around, really, by the entire San Diego team. They lost, but I bet they took a big step forward as a team yesterday.
*Tomlinson? Easiest thing in the world to sit back here and question something like this, with nobody hitting me as I type. But I’ll say this – yesterday just seems like the kind of thing that lingers around a guy for awhile. He’s got bigger problems now than what the other team’s coach is or isn’t teaching his players.
*The Patriots have to find a way to keep Kelley Washington around, I think. The Pats special teams have a handful of players – like Washington, Pierre Woods, veterans Eric Alexander and Larry Izzo – that make a big difference every week to little or no notice.
*Until now. In about a week, none of these guys will be able to move an inch without a camera in their mug, a leading question in the air, and a fourth world championship and NFL immortality within their still-perfect reach.