After three quarters, starting running back Thomas Jones had 18 carries but was averaging just 3.1 yards per attempt, while backup Cedric Benson had averaged 6.5 yards on his ration of four carries. So, who gets the first carry of the fourth quarter? Jones, for no gain.
Over the final four weeks of the regular season, Benson had 59 carries to 49 for Jones, so the backup admitted he was getting a little antsy.
"Uh, just a little," he said after a pause and a chuckle. "But I knew there would come a time and they would need me, so I just tried to stay warm over there. I was ready for a game-winning drive."
Benson didn't need to contribute much on the game-winning drive, although he was on the field. But he was instrumental in the fourth-quarter drive that ended with Robbie Gould's game-tying field goal, catching three passes for 24 yards. For one play in that drive, Benson was replaced by Jones, who picked up a critical nine yards on a third-and-2 play. As Benson re-entered, Jones screamed encouragement facemask-to-facemask.
"He was hyped," Jones said. "He was very excited and very pumped up. I think he was just doing like any guy would do, just trying to send out some more 'hypeness,' trying to help me out."
Jones finished with 66 yards on 21 carries, while Benson picked up 45 on 12 attempts, his fifth straight game with a dozen or more carries. While Benson and Jones play the same position, they're not consumed by competing against each other. "At this point we just kind of wanna win the big show," Benson said. "Our personal goals, and anything personal for me, I left it behind a long time ago; a long, long time ago."
Although Robbie Gould hit both his field-goal attempts, from 41 yards to tie the game and from 49 to win it in overtime, he did make a mistake. At the end of regulation he brought his kicking tee out on the field for some practice kicks in anticipation of a game-winning opportunity. That apparently isn't allowed, as he was informed of by an official.
"I guess I'm not supposed to do that," Gould said. "But before the last overtime game, against Tampa Bay, I did it; I really didn't know. I don't think it's really a problem, but I'm glad I got a few attempts in."
While quarterback Rex Grossman said he was too nervous to watch Gould's game-winner, the kicker said he can't afford to give in to emotions. "I really don't get nervous," Gould said. "As a kicker, you can't get nervous. Once you start getting nervous, you end up missing kicks. You have to be confident in practice all week, and I had a great week of practice. These are conditions we're used to playing in."
According to the 25-year-old Gould, it's just another day at the office. "Games are won and lost on field goals," he said. "It's what I'm supposed to do. I'm supposed to go out there and do the best that I can. I have the confidence and the ability, and the guys around me are great. I know I have a chance to win the game, and you have to trust your line and do your mechanics like with any other kick."
--Rashied Davis hasn't had a lot of opportunities as the Bears' No. 3 receiver, but he has made a lot of big plays. Davis had a modest total of 22 catches in the regular season, but six of his receptions were for more than 20 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown with less than two minutes remaining for a 19-16 victory over the Vikings in Week Three. Sunday he had four catches for 84 yards including receptions of 37 and 30 yards on third-and-10 plays. The first set up the Bears' opening score and the other set up Robbie Gould's game-winning field goal in overtime.
"I think Rex has a lot of confidence in him in the slot," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "We talked all last year that we need to get a good, consistent slot receiver, someone who makes some plays, and Rashied's given us that."
--Despite being a hotter topic of conversation and under closer scrutiny than Rosie O'Donnell vs. Donald Trump over the past two weeks, Bears quarterback Rex Grossman hasn't lost his sense of humor.
"How long were the last two weeks for you," Grossman was asked.
"It was 14 days," he said. Grossman said he's able to block out the overblown criticism and the praise that come with his job. "I'm excited the game is over and we won," he said. "That's all I worry about. I think you (the media) give yourself too much credit (about) how you affect me. It affects my family more than it does me."
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--WR Mark Bradley suffered a sprained ankle and isn't expected to play Sunday.
--DE Adewale Ogunleye was on crutches following Sunday's game because of a quad contusion, but he's expected to play this week.
--FB Jason McKie tweaked the sprained ankle that kept him out of the final regular-season game and will probably be listed as questionable this week.
--CB Ricky Manning Jr.'s interception Sunday was his fifth in eight postseason games. He has 14 more picks in four regular seasons.
--PK Robbie Gould has connected on 30 of 34 field-goal attempts this season, including his 2-for-2 performance vs. the Seahawks.
REPORT CARD VS. SEAHAWKS:
PASSING OFFENSE: B -- For most of the afternoon it was Good Rex, and it could have been Great Rex were it not for a catchable ball that WR Muhsin Muhammad let clank off his hands and into the grasp of Seahawks loan officer Pete Hunter. Grossman threw for 282 yards, completing 21 of 38 for 282 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown to Bernard Berrian (five catches, 105 yards). No. 3 WR Rashied Davis had 84 yards on four catches despite not having a game with more than 48 yards in the regular season.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C-minus -- Thomas Jones scored twice but totaled just 66 yards on 21 carries. Backup Cedric Benson was barely used at all until the fourth quarter but contributed 45 yards on 12 carries.
PASS DEFENSE: C-plus -- No Seattle receiver even had 50 yards, and QB Matt Hasselbeck netted just 179 passing yards while completing 18 of 33 for a passer rating of 69.6. Bears nickel corner Ricky Manning Jr. had a key interception early in the fourth quarter one play after Grossman threw his only pick. Adewale Ogunleye, Alex Brown and Tank Johnson all had sacks.
RUSH DEFENSE: C -- Even though Shaun Alexander isn't running as he did in last season's MVP campaign, he still managed 108 yards and two touchdowns against the Bears. Pro Bowl WLB Lance Briggs had a huge stop on Alexander, though, when he stuffed him for a two-yard loss on a fourth-and-1 play near midfield with two minutes left in regulation.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B -- PK Robbie Gould was clutch with a 41-yard field goal to tie the game with 4:24 left in regulation and a 49-yarder to win it in OT. P Brad Maynard was mediocre but allowed just two return yards. Kickoff coverage was subpar, as the Seahawks averaged 27.7 yards. RS Devin Hester fumbled three punts but recovered all of them himself. He had a 63-yard punt-return touchdown called back because of an illegal block by Ricky Manning. Other than that, the Seahawks were able to take him out of the game.
COACHING: C -- A ridiculous timeout with two seconds left in regulation gave the Seahawks an extra play from their 46-yard line that could have proved disastrous if they were able to hit a Hail Mary. But allowing Rex Grossman to make plays and take chances when they were there was one of the keys to victory. Backup RB Cedric Benson had just four carries in the first three quarters, even though he averaged 6.5 yards on his few opportunities, while starter Thomas Jones averaged just 3.1 yards per carry on 21 attempts.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
For three months -- ever since an unexpected yet impressive 5-1 start -- fans have been talking about their beloved Saints being a team of destiny. Saints fans throughout the New Orleans area, the state of Louisiana and the entire region have been yearning for a Super Bowl -- without their team getting close to playing for one -- yet alone winning it.
On Sunday morning, fans awoke (then again, many didn't go to sleep) to find the Saints are just one victory away from getting to the NFL's biggest game for the first time in the franchise's 40-year history. All that remains for the Saints (11-6) to achieve that long-awaited goal is a win over the Chicago Bears in the NFC title game on Sunday. The Saints pulled off enough big plays in the second half of their 27-24 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Divisional Playoff game Saturday night to make fans believe they're destined to reach Super Bowl XLI.
These are, the fans reasoned, the new Saints. While the old Saints might have caved in after the Eagles extended their lead to 21-13 on a 62-yard touchdown run by Brian Westbrook on the third play of the second half, the new Saints battled back with a pair of Deuce McAllister touchdowns on back-to-back drives to take a lead it would not relinquish.
Then, the Saints' defense, a big question mark going into training camp, made three stops in the final 15 minutes -- including turning the Eagles away after they had a second-and-1 at the Saints' 4 -- and forcing them to kick a harmless field goal.
Westbrook was stuffed for no gain by defensive end Will Smith. On the next play, strong-side linebacker Scott Fujita read a screen pass and brought fullback Thomas Tapeh down for a 2-yard loss.
They followed that with two critical stops -- limiting the Eagles' second-ranked offense to three plays and a punt each time. The second stand came after Reggie Bush fumbled a toss from Drew Brees and gave the Eagles the ball near midfield.
"I was proud of the way our players handled the momentum shifts in the game," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "We talk about the adversity that you are going to see in a game. When they scored to go up by eight points in the third quarter -- that's a challenge.
"Offensively, we were able to get a drive and come back and score. Defensively, we hung in there and when we needed it the most in that fourth quarter, we were able to force a couple of three-and-outs. That enabled us to get the ball back and run out the clock."
When it was over, the NFL's Coach of the Year was happiest for all of the team's adoring fans. And especially for those who think this club is a team of destiny. "I couldn't be happier," he said. "These people have been through so much. They're a big part of this win and they're a big part of our season. I'm happy for the fans that have followed this team for so long through thick and thin. It's a special night."
--NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was among those who were impressed by what he saw in the Superdome -- both before and during the Saints' 27-24 playoff win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday night. Goodell praised the Superdome and the Saints, as well as the team's fans, for how far they've come in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
"We felt the enthusiasm as soon as we walked in," Goodell said. "A year ago, we were here and we didn't even know if they'd get the dome open. (For) the Herculean effort to get the Dome open, I obviously salute the people here in New Orleans and in Louisiana for getting it done.
"To see the Saints be able to bring their franchise back here and be able to get operating and then have the success on the field, that's incredible. So we're optimistic about the future."
--Saints coach Sean Payton said he won't change his team's work schedule one bit and will stick with the routine they've had for every Sunday game this season in preparing for the NFC Championship game on Sunday. "Our schedule will be the same this week," Payton said during his weekly news conference Monday. "The one challenge is always trying to eliminate distractions during the work week -- media requests and ticket issues. Trying to minimize these things and staying on schedule is the goal.
"I think it will be a normal work week schedule, it's a normal Sunday game and we'll travel on Saturday. With us playing (last) Saturday night we were able to give them a day where they could get home."
On Monday, the Saints reviewed the tapes from the Eagles' game, then did their usual day-after game running and weightlifting. Following their usual day off Tuesday, they'll practice Wednesday through Friday, have a walkthrough on Saturday and then fly to Chicago.
--Payton said he awarded the game ball from Saturday night's win to General Manager Mickey Loomis, who has gladly watched while Payton and the Saints got most of the credit for the success they've had this season. After guiding his team through the Hurricane Katrina tragedy in 2005, Loomis was instrumental in hiring Payton, then presided over the signing of All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees and drafting of Reggie Bush and several other rookies who have made an immediate impact on the team.
"You would be hard-pressed to go through that locker room and find somebody that he wasn't involved in signing or dealing with in some shape or form -- starting with me and going all the way down through player 53 on our roster," Payton said. "He's given us great support.
"He's a great decision maker. I think he's always well thought-out in regards to the decisions he has to make. And I think he has a tremendous amount of respect from not only our coaching staff and ownership, but also the players and everyone else in the building."
--Payton said Monday he had no news on the availability of four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Joe Horn for Sunday's NFC Championship game. While Payton said the Saints came out of Saturday night's game relatively healthy, Horn missed his fifth straight game because of a partially-torn groin. He also missed two games earlier in the season with the injury.
Payton said the Saints would issue their first injury report when they return to practice Wednesday, but reported Horn made some progress last week after having a setback earlier in the week.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--WR Joe Horn will likely be listed as questionable when the first injury report for the NFC Championship game with the Chicago Bears is released. Horn has been sidelined for the last five games with a partially-torn groin.
--WR Devery Henderson started the divisional playoff game with the Philadelphia Eagles and will probably start Sunday if Horn can't go.
--SS Omar Stoutmire missed his fourth straight game with a knee injury Saturday night and his status won't be determined until later in the week.
--SS Jay Bellamy will probably start Sunday's game against the Bears if Stoutmire is again sidelined by a knee injury.
--LT Jammal Brown was exhausted after Saturday night's game, but should be fine for the matchup with the Bears. Brown, who was ill earlier last week, got an IV in the locker room just before halftime and played the second half.
REPORT CARD VS. EAGLES:
PASSING OFFENSE: B-plus -- Drew Brees was 20-of-32 for 243 yards and one touchdown, completing 62.5 percent of his passes. He had a long completion of 35 yards to Devery Henderson to set up a field goal and later threw the pass that resulted in an 11-yard touchdown by Deuce McAllister and gave the Saints the lead for good late in the third quarter. Brees used his tight ends effectively, with six completions to three different players for 108 yards -- with each catching at least one pass of 20 yards or longer. Brees was sacked three times for 16 yards in losses.
RUSHING OFFENSE: A-plus -- The Saints were at their best when they needed to be with Deuce McAllister running over Eagles' defenders and Reggie Bush dashing away from them. McAllister posted a club playoff-record of 143 yards on 21 attempts with a long gain of 28. He powered his way to a 5-yard scoring run and averaged 6.8 yards per carry, while Bush added 52 yards and a touchdown while getting 4.3 yards per try. As a team, the Saints finished with 208 yards on 37 carries and averaged 5.6 yards per attempt as fullback Mike Karney, tight ends and offensive line all did their share in making the running game go.
PASS DEFENSE: C -- After allowing 178.4 yards a game and 11.7 yards per reception during the regular season, the Saints gave up 232 net passing yards and a 16.0 average to the Eagles. While they applied constant pressure to Jeff Garcia most of the night, they got to him just once. But they forced him to hurry his throws and he completed just 15 of 30 attempts for 240 yards and one touchdown. That score was a 75-yard pass to Donte Stallworth, who caught three balls for 100 yards.
RUSH DEFENSE: C -- The Saints did a decent job with the exception of one play, a 62-yard touchdown by Brian Westbrook on the third play of the second half. Prior to that, the Saints had held Westbrook to 11 yards on six carries with a long run of five yards. His 62-yard burst was one yard longer than all the runs they had the rest of the game combined as the Eagles finished with 123 yards on 20 carries with an average of 6.2 per attempt. Westbrook had 116 yards on 13 tries with a pair of TDs.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B -- The Saints averaged 7.0 yards on punt returns and 27.0 yards on kickoff returns with a 36-yard kickoff by Michael Lewis. On the other side, the Saints allowed 6.5 yards on punts and 28.0 yards on four kickoffs -- with the Eagles inflating that average with an extra 28 yards on a reverse. Punter Steve Weatherford averaged 40.3 yards with a net of 36.0 on three punts, but came up with a big play when he pulled the ball down as the Eagles' Shawn Barber was about to block one of his kicks and ran 15 yards for a first down. John Carney kicked field goals of 33 and 23 yards early in the game when the offense bogged down in the red zone.
COACHING: A -- Coming off a first-round bye, there was a concern that the Saints might be a little rusty -- which the offense was when they had to settle for a pair of early field goals. But Sean Payton had the Saints ready to play, balancing the need for practice along with making sure his players got some rest. They quickly ironed things out, especially in running the ball right at the Eagles -- who had played a game just six days earlier.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
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."
--RB Kevin Faulk tied the game at 21-21 on a 2-point conversion run with 2:51 left in the game. Faulk's run came on a direct snap from center Dan Koppen, and was the second two-point conversion run of his playoff career. Faulk also converted a two-point try in Super Bowl XXXVIII, taking a direct snap and running into the end zone with 2:51 left in the game to give the Patriots a 29-22 lead. "Kevin started left and he saw the hole open and cut back inside," QB Tom Brady said. "It was a great run. That was huge. That was a huge play. Down eight with however man, five minutes left. Two points, we get the ball back at our own 15, drive it to their 10. They just didn't have enough time."
--LB Rosevelt Colvin intercepted a Philip Rivers pass intended for LaDainian Tomlinson at the Patriots' 37-yard line on the final play of the third quarter. Rivers attempted to float the ball over Colvin's head, but the New England linebacker jumped, tipped the ball to himself and secured possession. The interception was the first of Colvin's playoff career and was his first interception since the 2001 regular-season finale, when he recorded an interception against the Jacksonville Jaguars while playing for the Chicago Bears.
"He made a nice play. I think just defensively, San Diego hasn't had many turnovers all year," coach Bill Belichick said. "They only had 15 the entire season and we had four today, so I think that's a real credit to our defense to be able to come up with those balls. They're careful with it, there are not a lot of opportunities. We had one on special teams and one on defense there with the strip. Just to come up with those plays, however you get them, is big for us. Rosie has done a good job for us all year and made a good, athletic play on that scramble pass, and made a nice catch back over his shoulder. That was a tough one."
--Belichick improved his career playoff record to 13-2 (.867), a mark that ranks second in NFL history, trailing only Vince Lombardi's 9-1 (.900) career playoff mark. Belichick's 13 career playoff wins rank fifth all-time, trailing only Tom Landry (20), Don Shula (19), Joe Gibbs (17) and Chuck Noll (16). Belichick owns an 82-27 (.752) record since the beginning of the 2001 season, a mark that leads all NFL coaches over that span.
--Rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski booted a 31-yard field goal with 1:10 remaining in the game to seal the victory for the Patriots. The game-winning field goal was the first of Gostkowski's career. Gostkowski was three-for-three on the afternoon, marking his second straight playoff game in which he was perfect on three field goals. He is a perfect six-for-six in his playoff career.
"He's doing great," Brady said. "He's very poised for his age and he's got a very strong leg. He's just booting through. Cross your fingers, hope it lasts another week."
--WR Reche Caldwell caught seven passes for 80 yards against his old team, including three big plays in the fourth quarter, recovering a fumble to set up his 4-yard touchdown catch that tied the score following a two-point conversion and then hauling in a 49-yard reception on the Patriots' game-winning drive that ended in Stephen Gostkowski's 31-yard field goal. Caldwell played for the Chargers for four seasons from 2002-05.
--WR Jabar Gaffney caught 10 passes for 103 yards and a touchdown, giving him two 100-yard games in two career playoff contests. Gaffney's 10 receptions are tied for the second highest total in Patriots playoff history, trailing only Deion Branch's 11 catches in Super Bowl XXXIX. Four of Gaffney's 10 catches came on New England's 11-play, 72-yard drive in the final two minutes of the first half that ended in his 6-yard touchdown catch -- the first of his playoff career. In two career playoff games, Gaffney has recorded 18 receptions for 207 yards and a touchdown.
--TE David Thomas recovered a muffed punt by San Diego's Eric Parker to give the Patriots possession at the Chargers' 31-yard line in the third quarter with the Patriots trailing 14-10. After Parker muffed the ball, the Patriots' Antwain Spann knocked the ball away from him and prevented Parker from recovering the loose ball. Thomas came out of the ensuing scrum with the football, setting up a 34-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski that cut the Chargers' lead to 14-13.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We didn't do very well against them last time we played them, so hopefully we can do better this time. They're a great football team, playing great defense now. They haven't given up much of anything on the defensive side of the ball. I think we all know what kind of offensive team they have. They're tough at home, they have great players, they're well coached. It will be a big challenge for us to go into Indy and be competitive with them." -- Bill Belichick on facing the Indianapolis Colts next week in the AFC Championship Game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
REPORT CARD VS. CHARGERS:
PASSING OFFENSE: B -- This wasn't one of QB Tom Brady's better overall games. He was erratic early on in the game, missing open receivers. However, once the fourth quarter hit, Brady turned it up a notch. He finished the game 27-of-51 for 280 yards and two touchdowns. He did throw three interceptions but none of them proved to be very costly. New England's offensive line did a tremendous job of giving Brady time in the pocket. Outside pass rushers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips came into the game with a lot of hype but neither was a factor on Sunday. Matt Light, in particular, did a great job blocking Merriman. Jabar Gaffney continued his stellar play in the postseason, tying a career-high with 10 receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown. It wasn't always pretty, but Brady and the Patriots receivers got it done in crunch time.
RUSHING OFFENSE: D -- The Patriots only ran for 51 yards on 21 carries. They tried running the ball early on but San Diego's defense bottled them up, so New England opted to go to the air instead. Kevin Faulk was the team's leading rusher with a meager 25 yards. However, he did have some success on draw plays right before the half to set up a Patriots touchdown. Faulk also took a direct snap into the end zone for the game-tying two-point conversion. Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney combined for just 23 yards on the day. If you told the Chargers defense they would shutdown New England's stable of running backs the way it did, they would have liked their chances.
PASS DEFENSE: B -- Philip Rivers played pretty well in his first postseason start. However, his receivers did not. The San Diego receiving corps dropped six passes in the game, many of them at critical moments. Vincent Jackson and Eric Parker had a miserable day. Despite plenty of opportunities, neither receiver did anything to help their quarterback. Even tight end Antonio Gates had an uncharacteristic drop near the goal line. Artrell Hawkins recorded a big sack to knock the Chargers out of field goal range but Rivers usually had time to locate his receivers. He finished the game going 14- of-32 for 230 yards and an interception. The interception by Rosevelt Colvin was a big momentum swing heading into the fourth quarter.
RUSH DEFENSE: C-minus -- Many felt the Patriots defense would attempt to take LaDainian Tomlinson out of the game. If that was their strategy, they didn't do a very good job of it. The NFL's MVP gashed New England for 123 yards and two touchdowns. Backup Michael Turner chipped in with 24 yards and a score of his own. Tomlinson didn't break off any big runs but he did average 5.3 yards per carry. Playing against one of the league's top rush defenses, the Chargers had to be happy with the way they ran the ball on Sunday. Unfortunately for them, it wasn't enough to get San Diego into the AFC Championship Game.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A -- Eric Parker's fumbled punt in the third quarter was recovered by David Thomas and cost the Chargers three points. Stephen Gostkowski continued to impress by nailing three field goals, including the game-winner from 31 yards out with just over a minute to go in the game. Todd Sauerbrun did a solid job punting the football. He averaged 44.1 yards per punt, including a long of 56. Nate Kaeding's last second field-goal attempt of 54 yards fell short, ending the Chargers' season. Maroney and Ellis Hobbs were quiet returning kicks but the Patriots coverage units were excellent.
COACHING: B-plus -- The Patriots did what they usually do when they face teams with a lot of talent, they hung around and hung around until late in the fourth quarter when Brady was able to make some big plays. The Patriots didn't do a great job of defending Tomlinson but they did control Gates. On defense, they showed Philip Rivers a lot of different looks and were able to force him into a couple of turnovers and quick throws. Belichick is now 12-1 in the playoffs since coming to New England. He continues to come up with great game plans and solidify himself as one of the greatest coaches in NFL history.
On Saturday night, not long after the Indianapolis Colts had handed the Baltimore Ravens a 15-6 AFC divisional playoff loss at M&T Bank Stadium, Peyton Manning was asked if he had any preference for who the Colts might play in this week's AFC Championship Game.
The Colts Pro Bowl quarterback, known for usually saying the things at the right time, had a typical response to the query.
"We're just happy to be in the (title) game. We really don't care who we end up playing," Manning said, carefully choosing his words. As for the follow up question, "Don't you really want to face the New England Patriots in a home game at the RCA Dome?," his reply pretty much stated the obvious.
"You had better be careful what you wish for because you may get exactly what you want," he told the reporter. Manning certainly got that right. The Patriots, thanks to a 31-yard field goal by rookie Stephen Gostkowski with 1:10 remaining in the game, rallied from a 21-13 fourth-quarter deficit for a 24-21 AFC divisional playoff win over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.
New England's come-from-behind win now sets up what figures to be one of the most anticipated matchups in AFC playoff history between the Colts and their most heated rival.
Indianapolis has won the last two regular-season meetings between the two conference teams, but the Patriots are 2-0 against the Colts in the postseason after posting a 24-14 win in the 2003 AFC title game and registering a 20-3 victory in a 2004 AFC divisional playoff game.
"New England has been like us as far as being under the radar where they have had some different people they normally have, but they have just quietly won games," Colts coach Tony Dungy said. "I read one story that they gave up the least amount of points in their franchise history. They are playing exceptional defense. (Patriots quarterback) Tom Brady is still doing all those things that cause you to win games, so I don't think they are a team anyone wants to play.
"It would be pretty raucous here I think (to host the title game). I know that's what our fans are hoping for. Secretly that's what we're hoping for. I'd really like it for our fans to be able to host an AFC Championship Game. We saw the environment in Baltimore and we see the environment on TV, what it's like in Chicago, and obviously playing at home would be something that you'd relish."
-- Colts coach Tony Dungy looking back at the AFC divisional playoff win over Baltimore: "Obviously, we are still on a high coming back from Baltimore. It was a big game for us, a big win. I thought a tremendous team win. We talked on Friday night at the hotel in our last meeting that a lot would be made about their No. 1 AFC defense against our No. 1 AFC offense, but we talked that if we on defense outplayed their offense and our special teams outplayed their special teams, that could be the difference. And I thought that's what happened. I thought our defense really stepped up again, did a great job with the takeaways, with the third-down defense."
-- Dungy on the improved play of the Colts' defense in the last two playoff games: "We're a little bit healthier (defensively), the young guys that have played know our defense a little bit better and to be honest, we've just played a little bit better. We've played a little bit faster, we've played more instinctively and we've also known these two offenses pretty well. The big thing that we've done in this post-season is play well on third down. When you have those third-down stops and you don't give the other team extra plays, that really helps you. We're playing better, we're tackling a little bit better in our zones. (Baltimore) had three or four situations where they threw balls underneath and we tackle them before they can make first downs. We have always had pretty good rush in the long-yardage situations, but those third-and-fives, third-and-sixes, we've tackled the underneath throws a little bit better. And obviously having (safety) Bob Sanders back and having (cornerback) Marlin Jackson in his normal position in there has helped us."
-- Former Patriots and current Colts PK Adam Vinatieri on having the reputation of being "Mr. Money.": "I think you have to go out and perform every single time you step on the field. I'm just very fortunate that I play on a team that can score a lot of points. And the guys that are on the field at the same time I am do a great job. You've got confidence in the guys up front and you know the ball's going to be there. So you just have to go and do your job. You just try not to let all of the implications and all of the extra hype and all that stuff get to you. You really just have to go out there and focus in on what you're doing and hope for the best, I guess."
--Indianapolis is 0-2 in AFC title games since coming to Indianapolis, losing to the Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers (20-16, 1995). The Colts are 0-3 in AFC Championship Games dating back to a 21-0 loss to Miami during the 1971 season.
--As a franchise, the last time the Colts hosted an AFC title game was on January 3, 1971, when the then-Baltimore Colts knocked off the Oakland Raiders 27-17. That team went on to post a 16-13 win in Super Bowl V, which was ironically played in the same city as this year's site in Miami.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--A shoulder injury kept rookie RB Joseph Addai from finishing what he started in the Indianapolis Colts' AFC divisional playoff win at Baltimore on Saturday. It isn't expected to keep Addai out of Sunday's AFC Championship Game. Coach Tony Dungy said he hadn't yet met with trainers and was unable to elaborate on the nature or severity of the injury that limited Addai to four second-half carries against the Ravens. He rushed 14 times for 30 yards in the first half.
"He's OK," Dungy said. "He hurt his shoulder and made it through the first half OK.""Joseph wasn't 100 percent and Dom (Dominic Rhodes) was running well. I think Joseph could have played, but just like last week (against Kansas City), there was no need because Dom was getting the job done."
--Dungy said he was unable to shed any light on an apparent injury to Pro Bowl receiver Marvin Harrison. "Marvin, I think, is going to be fine," he said. "He's been battling a few things, his wrist more than anything. But he didn't say too much on the plane." There was no indication that Harrison's injury is serious.
--Dungy defended QB Peyton Manning, who has had two straight un-Manning-like games: one touchdown, five interceptions, a 58.3 rating. "It's funny," Dungy said. "I guess we have to have some things to complain about. We win two postseason games and it's not now that Manning can't win the playoffs; it's that he's not putting up the mega-numbers that we're expecting.
"He's won two games and we're in the conference championship, so I think he's playing great."
--Fate is an interesting thing. After playing his previous 10 NFL seasons with the New England Patriots, PK Adam Vinatieri will now get a chance to knock his old team out of the playoffs. Vinatieri had five field goals in Saturday's 15-6 AFC divisional playoff win over Baltimore and has kicked eight field goals in postseason wins over Kansas City and the Ravens. He now has scored in 19 consecutive postseason games, tying George Blanda's NFL postseason record. Vinatieri handled all of the scoring for the Colts against Baltimore, converting five field goals.
--The Colts continued to rotate Jason David and Marlin Jackson at right cornerback during Saturday's AFC divisional playoff win at Baltimore.
In the team's base defense, David generally was on the field when the Ravens utilized two wide receivers while Jackson replaced him when Baltimore added an additional tight end to their formation.
REPORT CARD VS. THE RAVENS:
PASSING OFFENSE: B-minus -- It wasn't a great game for the Colts' vaunted passing offense. Of course there's a reason for that. Indianapolis was facing the NFL's top-rated defensive unit. QB Peyton Manning completed 15 of 30 passes for 170 yards and had two pass intercepted. Manning's 39.6 passer rating was his worst in a winning effort. Still, Manning and Co. made plays when they had to. His third-down pass completion to a diving TE Dallas Clark late in the game kept the drive alive and set up a final game-clinching field goal.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B-plus -- No 100-yard rushers for the Colts. But that's okay. Indianapolis, behind the one-two punch of rookie Joseph Addai and veteran Dominic Rhodes, pounded out big yards when they had to have them. Indianapolis displayed a toughness to its running game, especially late in the contest, that observers hadn't seen in a while.
PASS DEFENSE: B-plus -- It's one thing for the Ravens defense to get all the accolades. It's something else entirely for the Colts defense to garner most of the attention. Indianapolis sacked Baltimore QB Steve McNair twice, forced two fumbles on pass plays and picked off a couple of passes. A great day's work for a defense that has certainly had its share of detractors this season.
RUSH DEFENSE: B-plus -- Indianapolis went into the playoffs with the league's worst run defense, giving up an average of 173 yards per game. But something has happened in the last two weeks because the Colts are playing like the 1985 Bears. Indianapolis gave up just 83 yards in 20 carries to the Ravens and limited the big run for the most part.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-minus -- Five Adam Vinatieri field goals, including one from 51 yards that glanced off the crossbar and made it over. That's when you know things are going your way. P Hunter Smith did his usual good job, averaging 32.5 yards net on four points and having one punt downed inside the Ravens' five-yard line. But his biggest contribution came as the holder for Vinatieri, safely handling what could have been a couple troublesome snaps. KR-PR Terrence Wilkins averaged 16 yards on three kickoff returns and 11 yards on three punt returns. He did bobble a couple of kickoffs but was able to finally secure the ball both times. The Colts' kick coverage continued to be good for the second straight week, led by DE Robert Mathis and DT Darrell Reid.
COACHING: A -- What else can anybody say? Few gave the Colts a snowball's chance of making it to the AFC title game, much less having the opportunity to host the game. Now Indianapolis is in the driver's seat and all the credit has to go to Tony Dungy and his coaching staff. Despite some shaky moments this season, especially on the defensive side of the ball, Dungy and his coaches have held things together and didn't panic. They didn't make any rash personnel changes. They stuck with their plans and now look where they are.