SAN DIEGO -- In games like yesterday's, winning football is about two things and two things only. It comes down to matchups and toughness, both mental and physical. Yesterday the Patriots got the matchups after a shift in offensive formation halfway through the game, and they proved tough all day long until they finally broke down the cocksure but ultimately confused and cowering San Diego Chargers and sent them home for the year far earlier than they had expected.
Chargers front office representatives met last week with city officials in San Diego to plan the logistics of their victory parade after the Super Bowl. Memo to the Chargers: There's no parade for one and done.
Somewhere after Feb. 4 there will be a parade, because some team will win Super Bowl XLI. It could be the Patriots, after yesterday's 24-21 victory in the AFC divisional round sent them to Indianapolis next Sunday to battle their long-time rivals, the Colts, for the conference title. The only parade involving the party-hearty Chargers, however, will be into Junior Seau's popular sports bar to watch New England and Indianapolis do battle for supremacy in the NFL's dominant conference.
While the top-seeded Chargers were planning parades and beating their chests about their 14-2 record, the Patriots were back in Foxborough, Mass., fully aware there was only one thing to be preparing for. For this game, and nothing else.
That preparation led New England to play much of the first half in a two-tight end set designed to provide Tom Brady maximum protection. It didn't work. It not only didn't stop him from being hit and harassed, but it also limited what the Patriots could run offensively. That led to a 14-3 deficit, and only 67 yards of total offense when they got the ball back with 1:58 to play in the second period. It was then that coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels went to the more dangerous three-wide receiver set that left them with only Daniel Graham in as an extra blocker, which in theory put Brady at risk. But in reality it put the Chargers there instead.
New England went 72 yards in 11 plays, covering that ground in less than two minutes to score its first touchdown, just before halftime, and amass more yards than they'd gained the entire half in one series. For much of the rest of the day New England stuck with that, seldom running the ball (21 carries for 51 yards, a 2.4 yards average), and instead beating the Chargers at a game that seemed unlikely -- challenging the secondary of a defense that had produced 61 sacks and a lot of migraines for quarterbacks. This wide-open passing game meant Brady threw 51 times, often without the max protection most people felt necessary to contain the pass rush of Shawne Merriman, Shaun Phillips, and Luis Castillo. What New England did was believe in itself instead of the Chargers' reputation, and seek out a matchup that, while perhaps risky for them, was equally risky for the Chargers.
"We weren't getting a lot of yards with two tight ends in so we felt we needed to find some matchups that were favorable to us," Brady said. "They don't like to bring in their third corner [Antonio Cromartie] much, so we went to three wides and it started working more than the other things we were trying. We had to do anything we could to gain yards because we were working hard for every yard. That was as hard a game to gain yards in that I can ever remember."
That was to be expected against one of the league's superior defenses, and the Patriots were ready for the pressure. They were ready for the physical side of what turned into a slugfest at the line of scrimmage. Most importantly, while some were planning parade routes, they were hatching pass routes that allowed them to survive an early storm surge by the Chargers and not crack. They were battered at times, but they were a seawall of resistance, a team that refused to buckle from early disappointment and the constant assault of the game's best running back, LaDainian Tomlinson.
The Patriots have won many games this way since the remarkable dynasty Belichick has built in Foxborough began six years ago, and yesterday's was another in what has become a long line of victories that came from a combination of strategical brilliance, boldness, and a firm conviction that somehow they will weather every storm and pay any price to win.
"You have to be manly tough in a game like that," said Kevin Faulk, who was never more so than when he was asked to deliver on a 2-point conversion in the fourth quarter that tied the game. That play showed the firm belief of Belichick that his team will respond to any challenge and showed the cool of Faulk when the moment of truth arrived.
"You gotta keep fighting," Faulk said. "Keep going no matter what the situation is. When we called for the conversion, the first thing is you've got to catch the ball. Then I saw their linebacker read it. The play was supposed to go to the other side but he read it, so I cut it back and [his teammates] made the blocks. Those are the plays you have to make. You gotta be prepared when the heat is on. We went to three wideouts because we weren't successful in other formations. That's what you have to be ready to do. Whatever it takes. That's what this team will do."
The same was not true of the Chargers, who were dominant in the first half yet surrendered a 72-yard scoring drive in the final 1 minute 56 seconds that allowed New England back into the game. Then they came out in the second half and took two penalties that cost them dearly, muffed a punt that was recovered by New England and led to a field goal, and then fumbled away an interception by Marlon McCree with six minutes to play and San Diego leading by 8 that changed everything.
McCree read the play perfectly to make the pick but was not alert in the way Belichick's Patriots always are after the interception. What did he think? That Troy Brown would not hound him like a Doberman until the whistle blew? That is just what Brown did, ripping the ball loose as they fell, and Reche Caldwell recovered for a first down. Five plays later, four of them from the shotgun with three wide receivers spreading the field to force San Diego to play more defensive backs than it wanted, and the game was tied by Faulk. After that, you knew what was coming, and seemingly so did the Chargers.
"They might have gotten a little tight in the second half," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "We got a lot of guys who are really comfortable playing in those situations."
Which brings us to the matter of toughness.
Most players in the NFL are physically tough, or else they would never get there. But there is a mental side to the game that not everyone possesses. Its absence is what leads a cornerback like Drayton Florence to take a ridiculous head-butt penalty at a critical juncture, or another corner like Quentin Jammer to lose sight and control of Caldwell for just an instant when it is most fatal, and give up a 49-yard completion on third and 10 with the ball at the New England 34. Just make that play, just hold your ground, just do what the Patriots do better than anyone -- their jobs -- and you have the ball back in good field position with a chance to take the lead.
But Jammer did not do his job. It was Caldwell, and of course Brady, who did. They made the play, Brady reading perfectly that the safety had slid to his left to bring double coverage to the opposite side of the field. The instant the safety moved, Brady turned his shoulders and knew where he was going with the ball. So did Caldwell. The one guy who didn't was the guy who saw it go over his head. Quentin Jammer. For all intents and purposes that was the ballgame, one won by the team that made one high-risk strategic shift to gain a matchup advantage and held its ground when the thing turned into a dogfight.
"You have to play a team like that for 60 minutes, and you can't make mistakes because they will capitalize on them," a weary Merriman said. "I felt we hit Brady more than a lot of teams have hit him this whole entire season, but he did exactly what we thought he was going to do. We knew he was going to throw efficiently and he was going to get rid of the ball and have a lot of good routes. That's why he's won three Super Bowls.
"We knew it was going to be a tough game because they've been in some similar situations before and it happened the way it did [yesterday]. With a team like that, you just can't make too many mistakes, because as soon as you do they take advantage of it and definitely use it against you. They did it quite a few times today."
Indeed they did, which is why there won't be a parade in San Diego until the Fourth of July.
Ron Borges can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.