Brady shaky, but Pats top Chargers 21-12

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.

Brady, coming off a record-setting 50 TD passes, threw for two scores. He also tossed a season-high three interceptions.

No matter, 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 2004 season.

Belichick's team eclipsed the 17-0 mark of the champion 1972 Miami Dolphins, and he'll soon try for his fourth NFL title.

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

Brady earned his 100th career victory and advanced without a hint of girlfriend drama -- taking notes, Tony Romo? The dimpled Patriots quarterback will bring true glam to Super Bowl: Imagine the paparazzi buzz if Brady is sighted with Gisele Bundchen.

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 breaths 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."


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