Monday, January 21, 2008
It Never Gets Old
For as long as you live, when your favorite team in any sport wins a big game, it gives you an incredible rush that simply cannot be duplicated (sex, drugs and rock and roll not withstanding). When said team advances to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in the last seven years and is now just win away from an unprecedented 19-0 campaign, what can you say? You've been there every step of the way but now that it's so close, you almost can't believe it. Such is the situation facing my New England Patriots, 21-12 winners over the spirited but ultimately undermanned San Diego Chargers yesterday in the AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium. A week from Sunday, the Patriots face the New York Giants in Arizona for Super Bowl 42.
The story of the game was the Patriots red zone defense and the clutch play of the running back duo of Laurence Maroney (25 carries, 122 yards, 1 TD; 1 catch, 9 yards) and Kevin Faulk (8 catches, 82 yards; 1 carry, 8 yards).
Without LaDainian Tomlinson (2 carries, 5 yards; 1 catch, 1 yard) for most of the game and with Antonio Gates (2 catches, 17 yards) and Philip Rivers (19 of 37, 211 yards, 2 INT's) hobbled, nobody in the world was picking the Chargers to knock off the Patriots. Then again, nobody expected San Diego to go into Indy last weekend and knock off the Colts.
Nate Kaeding (4 field goals) was San Diego's best offensive player and when that's the case, odds are you're not going to beat the Patriots. You have to match them touchdown for touchdown, something that nobody has done so far this season.
Tom Brady (22 of 33, 209 yards, 2 TD's, 3 INT's) had his worst game of the season, Randy Moss (1 catch, 18 yards; 1 carry, 14 yards) was a complete non-factor for the second straight playoff contest and yet the Pats still found a way to win.
San Diego corner Quentin Jammer made a leaping interception of Brady in the first quarter, leading to the first Kaeding kick, putting San Diego up 3-0.
New England finally started to move the ball at the end of the first quarter and into the second as Maroney dove in from a yard out, giving New England a 7-3 lead.
Vincent Jackson (6 catches, 93 yards) killed the Pats on the next drive with three catches but once again, the Chargers offense was stuffed inside the red zone. Ellis Hobbs made a big tackle on third down as he tackled Chris Chambers (7 catches, 90 yards) on an underneath route. Kaeding's kick cut it to 7-6.
After a punt, the Pats capitalized on a Rivers mistake as Asante Samuel stepped in front of a pass intended for Chambers and returned it 10 yards to the San Diego 24-yard line. Two plays later, Brady found Jabar Gaffney over the middle with a 12-yard catch and run for a score.
Ellis Hobbs (8 tackles) picked off Rivers on the next San Diego possession but the Pats couldn't do anything and were forced to punt it back to the Chargers.
Going into yesterday, Kaeding had been 2 for 6 in his postseason career so it was surprising when he nailed his third field goal of the day (from 40 yards) just before halftime. The Pats held a 14-9 lead.
The third quarter was a nightmare for Brady as he was intercepted twice. The first one was on New England's opening drive of the second half. Brady's pass for Donte' Stallworth went off the receiver's hands and into Chargers cornerback Drayton Florence's waiting arms. Taking over at the New England 49-yard line, the Chargers settled for another red zone field goal (24 yards). Junior Seau (6 tackles, 1 sack) made the defensive play of the game for the Pats on third-and-1 from the Pats 4. He shot through the line and tackled Michael Turner (17 carries, 65 yards) for a two-yard loss.
The game was effectively sealed early in the fourth as Brady found Wes Welker (7 catches, 56 yards, 1 TD) with a six-yard touchdown strike. The o-line gave Brady plenty of time and he looked at Moss, Ben Watson and finally Welker before throwing the ball.
Not to state the obvious but there are many reasons why Norv Turner is the coach he is and Bill Belichick is a three-time Super Bowl winner (currently 14-2 in the playoffs with New England). Exhibit A: San Diego choose to punt the ball away facing a fourth-and-10 at the Pats 36 with 9:21 left in the fourth quarter and down two scores (21-12). The Chargers never got the ball back as New England grinded the clock away. Faulk made three catches for 32 yards and two first downs on the drive, proving once again that he is the most underrated Patriot. Maroney was a bull, rushing eight times for 37 yards and three first downs. It was his fourth 100-yard performance in the last five games as he matched his impressive rushing total from last week. The guy is a stud, plain and simple. Any questions about his ability have been put to rest weeks ago.
Now the Pats face the Giants, a team that they barely beat 38-35 in the last week of the regular season. The G-Men have certainly peaked in the playoffs, winning all three of their games on the road against favored opponents. New York is for real, no question about it. Eli Manning is playing the best ball of his career, they have a solid running game and outstanding defense. If the Patriots win the Super Bowl, they will have earned 19-0 and the label of greatest team of all-time. Let the two weeks of relentless hype commence.