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PATRIOTS 24, CHARGERS 21

Electric company

Patriots' thrilling rally in fourth quarter shocks Chargers and puts N.E. in AFC title game

Jabar Gaffney (right) hauls in a pass from Tom Brady on New England's late game-tying drive. (JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF)

SAN DIEGO -- They hung in, hung in, hung in, just barely staying within striking distance.

The Patriots were taking more of the hits than dishing them out in yesterday's AFC divisional-round playoff game against the Chargers. They were battered, but not beaten, living dangerously close to the edge. Yet they never backed down.

That was what stuck out to coach Bill Belichick as he walked the hallways of Qualcomm Stadium after his team's stunning, come-from-behind 24-21 victory before a record crowd of 68,810.

"This is a tough football team, a tough football team," he said, repeating the words for effect. "We might go down, but we won't back down."

The result had left the coach speechless moments earlier, mainly because the Chargers held a 21-13 lead midway through the fourth quarter and appeared headed to victory. But the Patriots responded with a tying touchdown and 2-point conversion with 4:36 remaining before holding the Chargers on their ensuing drive.

Starting at their 15 yard-line, the Patriots then drove to the Chargers' 13, setting up a Stephen Gostkowski 31-yard field goal with 1:10 remaining to go ahead, 24-21. The Chargers' last-gasp 54-yard field goal attempt by Nate Kaeding with eight seconds left was no good, and the Patriots stormed the field in celebration.

The Patriots held one lead, 3-0 late in the first quarter, before Gostkowski's final kick. In an joyous locker room, players spoke about hanging in while playing in a frenzied environment, against the AFC's top seed.

"I think it says a lot about our character -- when you're down in a football game, how hard are you going to fight then?" said defensive lineman Richard Seymour. "Are you going to try to step up and make some plays for your football team to win? I think we have a lot of guys in this locker room that step up in crucial situations and make plays."

Added linebacker Tedy Bruschi: "It just reaffirms everything I believe about us. Our fight. We've fought all year. Guys have had to step up, guys have gone down. That's just who we are. No matter what situation we're in, just play hard and believe in yourself and your teammates. Any day, any game. You come out here and play the best team in the league and anything can happen."

The Patriots face the Colts in Indianapolis Sunday in the AFC Championship game. It is the team's fourth appearance in the conference title game since 2001.

The key play yesterday came when receiver Troy Brown kept the team's tying touchdown drive alive on fourth down, although it wasn't with a catch. The Patriots had driven to the Chargers' 41 and faced a fourth and 5 with 6:25 remaining. Quarterback Tom Brady was intercepted by Marlon McCree on the play, and Brown -- the intended receiver -- pried the ball free from McCree after the interception. Receiver Reche Caldwell recovered, giving the Patriots new life, and five plays later, Brady hit Caldwell for a 4-yard touchdown pass.

Yet the Patriots' work wasn't done, as they still trailed, 21-19, and needed a 2-point conversion. It came on an old favorite, a direct snap to running back Kevin Faulk in the shotgun, who churned up the middle to tie the game. Belichick said it was a play the team had worked on throughout the week if a conversion was needed.

After the Patriots held the Chargers on three plays, Brady and the offense took over on their 15 with 3:30 remaining. The crucial play came on third and 10, with Brady finding former Charger Reche Caldwell down the right sideline for a 49-yard gain to the San Diego 17. The Patriots played conservative from there, milking the clock and setting up Gostkowski's kick to take the lead.

All that was left was the final defensive stand and Kaeding's miss from 54.

Brady finished 27 of 51 for 280 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions, as the Patriots mostly attacked through the air, despite the heavy pressure of the Chargers that had Brady -- now 12-1 in his career in the playoffs -- out of his rhythm for good portions of the day. Receiver Jabar Gaffney tallied a team-high 10 catches for 103 yards and a touchdown, while Caldwell had seven grabs for 80 yards.

Defensively, the Patriots had trouble with running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who totaled 123 yards on 23 carries, to go with two touchdowns. But the unit hung tough, holding Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers to a 14-of-32 day for 230 yards and one interception. Tight end Antonio Gates totaled a team-high six catches for 61 yards for San Diego (14-3).

It was a game played in unseasonably cool temperatures (53 degrees), with the Patriots opening a 3-0 lead on Gostkowski's 50-yard field goal with 40 seconds left in the first quarter. The field goal was the longest in Patriots playoff history.

The Chargers answered back midway through the second quarter, stringing together a nine-play, 48-yard drive that culminated in a 2-yard touchdown run by Tomlinson. The key play came when Rivers seemingly connected with Gates for a 20-yard gain to the 2-yard line, with Gates fumbling after a hit from cornerback Ellis Hobbs. The officials ruled the play a fumble, recovered by Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, but the Chargers challenged the call and it was overturned on instant replay and became an incompletion. Four plays later, Tomlinson was barreling into the end zone over the left side with 7:19 left in the second quarter.

Tomlinson later helped pad that lead with a remarkable 58-yard reception on a screen play up the right side in which he eluded safety Artrell Hawkins, setting up a 6-yard touchdown run by Michael Turner on the next play. The Chargers led, 14-3, with 2:04 left in the second quarter, had controlled the field position for much of the first half, and also were winning the battle of the trenches on both sides of the ball.

Yet the Patriots responded with their best drive, operating out of a three-receiver set and turning to their two-minute offense. As the Chargers softened their coverage, the Patriots marched 72 yards on 11 plays, with Brady looking as comfortable as he had all afternoon. Long catches of 17 and 16 yards by Gaffney were the big gainers on the drive, which ended with Brady finding Gaffney in the back of the end zone for a 6-yard score with eight seconds left in the quarter.

The Patriots closed to 14-13 late in the third quarter on a 34-yard Gostkowski field goal. The Patriots were set up with good field position after Chargers returner Eric Parker muffed a punt, with cornerback Antwain Spann leveling him with a hit to further jar the ball loose, and rookie tight end David Thomas recovering. The Patriots took over on the Chargers' 31, advanced to the 14, but had to settle for the field goal.

The Chargers reestablished command early in the fourth quarter, with the dynamic Tomlinson scoring from the 3 to increase the lead to 21-13. Two long passes to Gates -- of 19 and 12 yards -- got the Chargers moving, before Rivers lofted a pass to receiver Vincent Jackson to the left-hand corner of the field for a 31-yard gain to the 3. Tomlinson did the rest.

Then came what appeared to be the a dagger for the Patriots, the fourth-down interception that Brown jarred free from McCree.

"Wow, what a game," Belichick said. "I'm speechless. I'm really proud of our football team. I thought the players showed a lot of mental toughness and physical toughness. I was proud of the way our guys stepped up and just battled for 60 minutes."

The emotions were overflowing in the locker room.

"It's always fun when you can get wins like that, fighting until the end, not really knowing what was going to happen," Seymour said. "We never had the game under wraps. They never had the game under wraps. It was about fighting to the end."

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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