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BOB RYAN

In Brady they trust

SAN DIEGO -- In Tom They Trust.

Fallow stretches, uncharacteristic bad picks, whatever. Doesn't matter. Remember Magic Johnson's celebrated "Winnin' Time?" Mr. Tom Brady has one, too.

"That's Tom Brady," said Heath Evans, spare back and special teamer extraordinaire. "He's the one guy we don't ever worry about."

Tom Brady was not Tom Brady for long stretches of this memorable game, and a lot of that had to do with the San Diego Chargers. "That was as tough a game as I ever remember playing," said Brady, who had to air it out 51 times yesterday in order to produce a 24-21 triumph. "We were doing everything we could to gain 5 yards out of them."

Brady's final numbers weren't that dazzling (27 of 51, 280 yards, 2 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, and a pedestrian 57.6 rating), but when has Tom Brady ever been about the numbers? Tom Brady is about one thing, period.

He's about winning the game.

This was a long, tough afternoon for your New England Patriots, who had two leads: 3-0 and the final score. The rest of the day was a brutal struggle to keep from getting destroyed by a 14-2 team that had been 8-0 at home. But the Patriots had two big things going for them, the first being San Diego's peculiar self-destructive nature and the second being their battle-tested quarterback. In the three most crucial offensive situations of the afternoon, Tom Brady made the plays he had to make.

Ever heard that one before?

The first situation occurred late in the first half. The Chargers had just gone ahead, 14-3, with a four-play, 77-yard drive highlighted by a 58-yard screen pass and run by LaDainian Tomlinson that gave the home squad a first down at the New England 6. So the Patriots rather seriously needed a score before the half.

Ever heard that one before?

And, of course, they got one, with Brady completing passes of 17, 16, 9, 7, and finally 6 yards, a pass to the left rear corner of the end zone to the ever-improving Jabar Gaffney.

The second situation began with the Patriots taking over at their 37 after San Diego had gone in front by a 21-13 score with 8:35 remaining. The official record will show a 32-yard drive, but it was, in reality, a 63-yard drive, since it was broken in two once the Patriots emerged from a bizarre play in which Brady had thrown a fourth-down interception, only to get the ball back when Troy Brown, a.k.a. Mr. Reliable, stripped the ball from San Diego's Marlon McCree and Reche Caldwell recovered at the Chargers' 32. Brady got them to the end zone in five pass plays, and Kevin Faulk got them the needed 2-point conversion on a direct snap play featuring a superb left-to-right improvisation.

Then, of course, there was the final drive. After the defense had made a clutch stand to force a three-and-out, Brady took over on his 15, needing somewhere in the vicinity of 52 to 53 yards to give Stephen Gostkowski a reasonable chance to kick the winning field goal.

OK, OK, he cut it close. He began the drive by hitting Daniel Graham for 19 yards, but it came down to a third-and-10 at his 34. But Brady wasn't going to settle for 10.

"They were [in] press coverage late in the game," explained coach Bill Belichick. "That gave us an opportunity to go deep."

Reche Caldwell went down the right sideline. Brady was the beneficiary of superb protection when he most needed it, and he took full advantage be delivering a room-service morsel to a hungry Caldwell, who gathered the pass in for a 49-yard gain to the San Diego 17.

It was the clutchest of clutch plays. Ever heard that one before?

"He put the ball in the perfect spot and Reche made the grab," summarized Evans.

"In a situation like that," said Gaffney (10 receptions, 103 yards), "there's no one better."

You knew Brady wasn't going to do anything stupid from there on out, and he didn't. Seven would have been nice, but the only smart play was to go for 3, and that's what they got when Gostkowski nailed his third field goal of the day, from 31 yards.

You know this stuff never gets old for Brady, who lives to make the Big Play in the Big Situation. He's had a lot of satisfying games and moments, but you can be certain he will save a spot in his heart for this one. The Patriots had come into Qualcomm Stadium and knocked off the AFC's top-seeded team, a team, in turns out, that had quite a lot to say during the game for an outfit that has yet to win anything. The Patriots, as you may know, prefer to do the playing and leave the yapping to others.

And there will be no more talk about the receiving corps. To borrow a phrase, they are what they are, and in the two 2007 playoff games they have been good enough for Brady to get the W. They are getting more and more skilled at making the tough catches from the knees down that keep the chains moving. If the Gaffneys and Caldwells of the world weren't accomplished at this maneuver before they came to the Patriots, they are now. They understand that Brady will throw the low ball, and their job is to catch 'em, no questions asked.

The Chargers made them work for it; that's for sure. "It was a challenging day all the way around," Brady confirmed. "I just couldn't find any rhythm for a while. Tried the quick stuff. That didn't work. Tried the screens. That didn't work. Every time I came off the field in the first half, I'd say, 'God, we've got to try something else.' "

But he knows it's not always going to be easy, and, in fact, he expects it to be a chore, so he never even comes close to being frustrated. He is gifted with enormous patience and at this stage of his career he has the requisite experience to probe and probe until he finds something that will work.

Someone asked him to define "mental toughness."

"Mental toughness," he pondered. "It's just not letting anything get to you. You have to be mentally tough enough to fight through whatever it might be, whether it's a bad play or a situation. We've got mentally tough guys."

One in particular. That's why the Patriots' official motto might as well be "In Tom We Trust." Because they do.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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