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Patriots flying high

N.E. stuns Chargers, 24-21; AFC title game next

SAN DIEGO -- When the helmets and chinstraps have been hung up for good, and the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era is officially over, the men who've made this football magic may look back and rank the best moments of their glory days. They'll certainly cite Super Bowl wins in New Orleans, Houston, and Jacksonville, plus the snowy night when they closed the old stadium in Foxborough, Mass., for the last time.

And for sure they will talk about the second Sunday in January of 2007 when they stunned the mighty San Diego Chargers, 24-21, in a game that featured all the clutch elements that have been part of this historic run.

"If something bad happens, we come back and we deliver," said veteran linebacker Tedy Bruschi.

And so the Patriots are going to the AFC Championship game -- a game they never have lost -- Sunday at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. After losing some worthy veteran teammates and struggling to find offensive rhythm early in the season, they are 14-4 and only one victory from their fourth Super Bowl appearance in six seasons.

The Peyton Manning-led Colts already have been established as 3-point favorites against New England, and that suits the Sons of Belichick nicely. The Patriots seem to do their best work on the road when the home team expects to win. Ask the 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers. Or better yet, ask the Chargers.

Chargers fans did not see their Bolts lose a game at Qualcomm Stadium in 2006. But this is January, and that is when the Patriots steal your lunch money. The Patriots exposed and exploited a talented but inexperienced Chargers team that had nine Pro Bowlers, including league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson.

Clutch performances? Brady (12-1 in the playoffs) threw a whopping 51 passes and orchestrated tying and winning drives in the final six minutes. It was the Full Montana. Fourteen-year veteran Troy Brown saved the game when he caused a Chargers fumble seconds after Brady was intercepted. Meanwhile, mad genius Belichick overwhelmed counterpart Marty Schottenheimer (5-13 in the playoffs), calling a trick play (direct snap to Kevin Faulk) for a 2-point conversion when the Patriots needed a deuce for the tie with 4:36 left. Poor Marty was ignored as he tried to call timeout when the Patriots were setting up the play.

The Chargers fell hard in a hail of turnovers, dropped passes, bad decisions (Marty went for it on fourth and 11 from the Patriots 30 in the first quarter) and immature penalties. They led by 8 points with less than five minutes to play, but repeatedly shot themselves in the cleats down the stretch. In popular sports parlance, they choked. New England players don't know the meaning of that word. They simply did what they have been doing since Brady took over the team in 2001. They played smart, strong, blood & thunder football when it mattered most.

It was an unseasonable 53 degrees at kickoff. It felt like November in Foxborough. Almost four hours later, the Patriots made it feel like New Orleans, Houston, and Jacksonville in February.

It was flyover loud at Qualcomm every time the Patriots went to work on offense and it took a while for Brady to find holes in the Chargers defense. Still, the Patriots got out of the gate first with a 50-yard field goal by rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski. No Patriot ever has kicked a longer field goal in the postseason. Not even Adam Vinatieri.

Touchdown runs by Tomlinson and Michael Turner gave San Diego a 14-3 lead late in the second quarter and it looked at times like the Patriot might find themselves dominated. But Brady led them on a surgical two-minute drill before the half and a 6-yard TD pass to Jabar Gaffney cut it to 14-10 at intermission.

A foolish (unnecessary roughness) Chargers penalty enabled the Patriots to keep a drive alive in the third period and a 34-yard kick by Gostkowski made it 14-13.

When Tomlinson ran 3 yards for another touchdown with 8:35 left, the Chargers appeared to be in good shape. But again they were victims of their lack of self-discipline. Another unnecessary roughness penalty, this one on the point-after kick, gave the Patriots a jump-start for their tying drive. Brady got a march going, but this time he needed a save from old friend, receiver Brown.

"You have to be able to manage your emotions better than we did on a couple of occasions," said Schottenheimer, who'll have a long summer living this one down.

On a desperation fourth-and-5 play from the Chargers 41, Brady was picked off (for the third time) by safety Marlon McCree. It looked like the ballgame was over, but Brown came up behind McCree and stripped the ball. It was recovered by Patriots wideout Reche Caldwell, and five plays later Caldwell was cradling a 4-yard TD catch. Only 4:36 remained. The Patriots still trailed, 21-19. They needed 2 points. And while Schottenheimer slept, the ball was snapped to Faulk -- instead of Brady. While Brady faked getting the snap, Faulk followed great blocking into the end zone. Tie game.

Feeling the pressure, the Chargers immediately went three-and-out. So much for the Patriots having an "old defense." New England got the ball back on the 15-yard line and Brady moved the Patriots 72 yards in eight plays. The Full Montana. And Gostkowski's 31-yarder was Vinatieri-true.

San Diego had one last gasp, but Nate Kaeding's 54-yard field goal attempt was way short, and it was on to Indianapolis for the still-proud, still championship-caliber Patriots.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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