Patriots 1 win from perfection
Tom Brady wasn't perfect, but the New England Patriots still are.
The star quarterback threw three interceptions, but hit Wes Welker for a key six-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter as the unbeaten Patriots reached their fourth Super Bowl of the decade with a 21-12 win over the visiting San Diego Chargers in Sunday's AFC title game.
Brady also threw a 12-yard TD pass to Jabar Gaffney in the second quarter, and Laurence Maroney earlier scored on a one-yard run for New England (18-0), which advanced to the Feb. 3 Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., where they'll meet the NFC champion New York Giants.
New York, which upset Green Bay Sunday to reach the NFL title game, pushed the Patriots to their limit in the final week of the regular season before succumbing 38-35 at Giants Stadium.
A Super Bowl victory over New York would give New England an unprecedented 19-0 season. The 1972 Miami Dolphins are the only NFL team to finish a regular season and playoffs undefeated, but they had to win only 17 games to do so.
"I think there will be a time to sit back and reflect," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whose team last reached the Super Bowl in 2005, when they beat Philadelphia for their third title in four years. "We'll certainly enjoy this for a few days."
Maroney carries the load
The Brady-directed New England passing attack — the driving force behind the highest-scoring offence in league history during the regular season — was not at its best under cold and windy conditions Sunday at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
Brady, the NFL's most valuable player, completed two-thirds of his 33 passes, but his three interceptions were the most he's thrown all season. Star wideout Randy Moss caught just one pass for 18 yards, and slot receiver Welker was limited to 56 yards on seven catches.
Reserve running back Kevin Faulk was the Patriots' leading receiver in both catches (eight) and yards (82).
But Maroney was there to pick up the slack, rushing 25 times for 122 yards, including crucial ground down the stretch to help bleed the clock dry. And the passing game came through when it mattered.
With the Patriots clinging to a 14-12 lead in the fourth quarter, Brady found Welker in the end zone with 12:21 remaining to give New England a two-score lead that the Chargers would not threaten.
"Now we're going someplace warm, because I'm freezing my you-know-what off," Brady said.
Key Chargers hobbled
San Diego (13-6) fought gamely against the heavily favoured Patriots, but had trouble scoring with three of their best offensive players — running back LaDainian Tomlinson, tight end Antonio Gates and quarterback Philip Rivers — hobbled by injuries.
Though the Chargers were able to move the ball fairly effectively, even getting it inside the New England 10-yard line on three occasions, they couldn't reach the end zone. Field goals of 26, 23, 40 and 24 yards by kicker Nate Kaeding accounted for all of San Diego's scoring.
Tomlinson, the NFL's regular-season rushing champion who suffered a hyperextended knee in last week's playoff win at Indianapolis, carried the ball on San Diego's first two plays before heading to the sidelines for good. Backup Michael Turner picked up 65 yards on 17 carries.
"From getting [the knee] reinjured the first play, I just knew I didn't have it," Tomlinson said. "I'm kind of at a loss for words."
Rivers, also bothered by a sore knee, finished 19-for-37 for 211 yards and threw two interceptions.
Gates, hampered by a dislocated toe, caught two passes for 17 yards.