NFL Playoffs: Patriots 24, Chargers 21
By Bernie Wilson
SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Chargers gave Tom Brady one chance too many, and that’s exactly what the three-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback needed.
Brady and the New England Patriots shocked league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson and the Chargers on Sunday, winning 24-21 to move within one win of their fourth Super Bowl trip in six seasons.
Brady overcame three interceptions, his career playoff high, to lead the Patriots to 11 points in 3:26 late in the game. He and coach Bill Belichick now have a 12-1 postseason record and are heading to Indianapolis for the AFC championship game next Sunday.
“That was as tough of a game as I can ever remember playing,” Brady said.
While the Chargers respected the mystique Brady and the Patriots had built with Super Bowl wins following the 2001, 2002 and 2004 seasons, they hoped to be the ones raising the Lombardi Trophy in Miami on Feb. 4.
San Diego had nine players voted to the Pro Bowl team and five to the All-Pro team. And it had been supercharged by Tomlinson, who became the most prolific scorer in one season in NFL history with 31 touchdowns and 186 points while winning the rushing title with 1,815 yards.
But Brady is the one who’s been there before in January. And nearly always has won — it was Brady’s 24th career game-winning drive.
He left behind some frustrated Chargers, including Tomlinson, who went after an unidentified Patriots player when the game ended. Tomlinson ran for 123 yards and two scores, and caught two passes for 64 yards.
Tomlinson said he was upset that some Patriots were dancing on the Chargers logo at midfield after they had silenced the record crowd of 68,810 at Qualcomm Stadium and wrecked the Chargers’ season, which included an NFL-best 14-2 record and 8-0 home mark in the regular season.
“I would never react in that way. I was very upset,” Tomlinson said. “They showed no class and maybe that comes from the head coach.
The winning points came on a 31-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski with 1:10 left. That capped a 72-yard drive highlighted by a 49-yard pass to Reche Caldwell, who left the Chargers as a free agent after last season.
With the Patriots trailing 21-13, Brady threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to the wide-open Caldwell with 4:36 to play. The Patriots tied it on a tricky 2-point conversion, snapping the ball directly to running back Kevin Faulk, who was standing next to Brady and ran through the middle of the line.
San Diego’s Pro Bowl kicker Nate Kaeding was short on a 54-yard field goal try with 3 seconds left.
It was a crushing end to San Diego’s season, and could lead to coach Marty Schottenheimer’s ouster.
Schottenheimer fell to 5-13 in the postseason in his career.
The Chargers had four turnovers and made other critical mistakes.
Punt returner Eric Parker had a double muff to give the Patriots the ball on their 31 late in the third quarter. Following a third-and-13 on which Brady fumbled and Matt Light recovered, Chargers cornerback Drayton Florence head-butted tight end Daniel Graham and drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. That led to Gostkowski’s 24-yard field that pulled the Patriots to 14-13.
Tomlinson scored on a 3-yard run with 8:35 left in the game for a 21-13 lead.
On the next Patriots drive, Brady was intercepted by safety Marlon McCree, who, rather than going down, tried for a return and was hit by Troy Brown and fumbled, with Caldwell recovering. Five plays later, Brady hit Caldwell and Faulk added the conversion.
Tomlinson scored on a 2-yard run in the second quarter for a 7-3 lead. Later, he turned a screen pass into a brilliant 58-yard gain, leaving two defenders grasping at air while he scooted to the New England 6. His backup, Michael Turner, scored on the next play for a 14-3 lead.
San Diego lost its fourth straight postseason game dating to the Super Bowl following the 1994 season.
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