The Patriots marched into San Diego as an underdog but came away with a gutsy 24-21 win. In a tough, hard-fought battle, Tom Brady and the Patriots did what they usually do in the playoffs, they made big plays with the game on the line. In true Patriots playoff fashion the game came down to the very end. Nate Kaeding missed a 54-yard last-second field-goal attempt short and wide right to send New England to the AFC Championship Game and the Chargers home. After the Chargers ignited the record home crowd of 68,810 with a LaDainian Tomlinson 3-yard run to take a 21-13 lead midway through the fourth quarter it looked like it might not be the Patriots' day. And when Brady threw his third interception of the game as Marlon McCree stepped in front of Troy Brown on a fourth-and-five attempt just past midfield, it looked like the Patriots' season might end in the divisional round on the road for the second straight January.
But as McCree attempted to return the pick the do-it-all Brown came from behind to knock the ball loose and it was recovered by teammate and former Charger Reche Caldwell at the Chargers 32. A few plays later Brady found Caldwell for a 4-yard touchdown and New England tied the game on a direct snap to Kevin Faulk for the two-point conversion.
New England's defense then forced a quick San Diego three-and-out and Brady was back on the field moving 72 yards in eight plays in just 2:20 -- anchored by a 49-yard completion to Caldwell down the right sideline on third-and-10 -- to set up Gostkowski's first-career game-winning kick. "I don't think about that stuff," Gostkowski said of his first pressure kick. "It seemed like any other kick to me."
And it was the latest case of the Patriots making the plays in all three phases they needed to in a hard-fought, evenly-matched playoff game that came down to fourth quarter plays to either move on or go home to another sudden offseason.
"Fourth quarter. Close game. We liked our chances," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said.
Brady (27-of-51 for 280 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions) wasn't his usual sharp self early on, missing on plenty of throws and struggling to find accuracy, despite the fact that the New England offensive line did a more than admirable job controlling San Diego's impressive pass rush. The group recorded an NFL-best 61 sacks during the regular season, but Shawne Merriman and Co. got to Brady just twice and never really became a factor in the game.
"We had some trouble with them and I think they had a little bit of trouble with us," coach Bill Belichick said after improving his career playoff record to 13-2. "It was a competitive game. There was some ebb and flow. It was a dogfight. We just made more plays at the end than they did."
The Patriots now get another shot at the Colts, who advanced to host the title game thanks to a 15-6 win in Baltimore that featured five Adam Vinatieri field goals. Faulk summed up his team's win and what lies ahead. He referenced Indy's two convincing wins over the Patriots in the last two regular seasons.
"We have to prepare for Indy now," Belichick said. "They got our number the last two times we played them, so they have an edge up on us."