for this game

Patriots sink Chargers, return to Super Bowl

Jan 21, 2008 - 4:31 AM FOXBOROUGH, Massachusetts (Ticker) -- The New England Patriots have a chance to make history in a familiar setting.

Laurence Maroney rushed for 122 yards and a touchdown as the undefeated Patriots overcame a shaky performance from Tom Brady to grind out a 21-12 victory over the San Diego Chargers in Sunday's AFC Championship game.

In becoming the first team in league history to start a season 18-0, New England rode the strong legs of Maroney to punch its ticket to its fourth Super Bowl appearance in seven years.

"Well, I can't tell you how good it is to come in here after that game," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who improved to 15-3 in the postseason. "The players, they just did an awesome job; they have all year. It's a real privilege to coach this group of guys, and they stepped up and made the plays again today like they have all year, and I really think it was the players' game.

"They did everything they needed to do to beat an outstanding football team."

The Patriots will play the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII on February 3 in Glendale, Arizona. New England is 3-0 in its three trips to the Super Bowl this decade.

"Every time I've played in the Super Bowl, I've cherished that and it never gets old," Brady said. "Standing up there and accepting the Lamar Hunt Trophy for the team for the fourth time is pretty outstanding."

Despite sub-par performances from league Most Valuable Player Brady and superstar wide receiver Randy Moss, the Patriots improved to 4-1 in title games in the past seven seasons - with the only loss coming a year ago to eventual Super Bowl champion Indianapolis.

"Anything I say isn't going to change the disappointment I feel or the guys in our locker room feel because we came in here with every intention of winning this football game," San Diego coach Norv Turner said. "We had some unbelievable efforts. We had guys make remarkable commitments in terms of laying it on the line when they probably shouldn't have been out there on the field. I can't say enough for guys that care that much."

The Patriots had stormed to the league's first perfect regular season since the 1972 Miami Dolphins with a record-setting passing attack fueled by Brady and Moss, who set single-season records for most TD passes (50) and scoring receptions (23), respectively.

But with two-time Super Bowl MVP Brady throwing three interceptions - the most he's thrown since being picked off that many times by the Chargers in the playoffs last season - Maroney picked up the slack to help the Patriots improve to 11-0 all-time at home in the playoffs.

"We come into the game and try to be balanced," Maroney said. "Hopefully, the pass works. If the pass doesn't work, hopefully the run works. I really didn't know what to expect in terms of carries. I just knew that whenever they called my name, I'd be ready."

The second-year running back rushed for 122 yards for the second straight week and had his fourth 100-yard effort in his last five contests to help New England prevail despite its lowest-scoring game of the season.

"Laurence ran well, made some key plays when we needed to," Belichick said.

Maroney was at his best after San Diego closed to within 14-12 following an interception of Brady on the opening drive of the second half.

Limited to 17 yards on seven carries in the first half, Maroney rushed for 105 on 18 carries after the intermission, including a 20-yard run that set up Brady's 6-yard scoring pass to Wes Welker that gave the Patriots a 21-12 lead with 12:15 to play.

"They played tough the first half, they played tough the second half," Maroney said. "It seemed like they started giving ground a little in the second half. We just kept pounding them and pounding them, and eventually those little two-yard runs broke into eight- and 10-yard runs."

Backfield mate Kevin Faulk provided a perfect complement to Maroney, hauling in eight passes for 82 yards - including three as New England killed the final 9:13 off the clock.

"He is a headliner," Patriots linebacker Junior Seau said of Faulk. "And the third downs in which he played were one of the reasons why we're here today. ... Trust me. He's special."

Brady finished 22-of-33 for 209 yards, two touchdown passes and the three interceptions. Moss had just one reception for 18 yards.

It was a stark contrast to last week, when Brady set a postseason record for the highest completion percentage (92.9) in league history and his spectacular regular season that featured just eight picks.

"That's what they do, they make you pay. It's a difficult defense to play against," Brady said. "I think they challenge you in a lot of ways. But at the same time, I thought we made enough plays to win and I thought the defense played outstanding."

San Diego (13-6) had its chances, getting inside New England's 10-yard line on three occasions, but had to settle for field goals by Nate Kaeding each time in having its eight-game winning streak snapped.

"It was crucial that we had those red-zone stops," Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "I mean, when you hug your coach after you've won the AFC championship and the first thing he says was, 'Great job in the red area,' you know it was important."

The Chargers had to play without star running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who saw action on their first two possessions before leaving the game with a sore knee. Tomlinson had suffered a hyperextended knee in last weekend's 28-24 victory at Indianapolis.

"LT tried to go and he just couldn't go," Turner said. "The pain in the knee, he just couldn't push off it. He couldn't go."

Quarterback Philip Rivers, who was doubtful all week with a sprained MCL in his right knee, completed 19-of-37 pass attempts for 211 yards and two interceptions.

The Chargers, who were hammered by the Patriots in Week Two, 38-14, were fortunate to be within striking distance at halftime, overcoming a pair of interceptions by Rivers and failing to get into the end zone despite two 1st-and-goal opportunities.

"I thought we gave ourselves a chance today," Rivers said. "It's unfortunate we couldn't score in the red zone, where we're usually so good. Three times we were inside the 10. I told Nate he was awesome, but I told him I wish he could have kicked two fewer field goals."

San Diego did carry some momentum into the locker room, getting a 40-yard field goal from Kaeding - his third of the half - with eight seconds remaining until the intermission.

Brady was uncharacteristically erratic in the opening quarter, even throwing the first interception of his career in the first period of a playoff game.

With the Chargers blanking Moss in the first half, Brady started to rely on short passes, continually going to Faulk - who had five of his eight catches in the first 30 minutes.

After spotting San Diego a 3-0 lead, New England moved 65 yards in 10 plays. Moss had a 14-yard gain on a reverse and Brady was 5-of-6 for 39 yards, setting up Maroney's 1-yard run for a 7-3 lead with 13:48 left in the second quarter.

Rivers brought the Chargers right back, hitting Vincent Jackson three times for a total of 52 yards to set up Kaeding's 23-yard kick that made it 7-6.

"We had opportunities and ended up having to kick field goals." Turner said. "We knew we had to find a way to get touchdowns."

The Patriots' defense came up with the first pivotal play of the half when Asante Samuel stepped in front of a pass by Rivers and returned it to San Diego's 24-yard line with 4:36 to play.

New England needed two plays to convert the turnover, with Brady hitting Jabar Gaffney over the middle for a 12-yard scoring pass and a 14-6 lead with 3:51 left in the half.

"Probably the biggest play of the game was when Philip got grabbed around the legs and Samuel made a great play," Turner said. "When you look back on it, that's probably the difference in the game. They wind up getting a touchdown off a short field."

Ellis Hobbs intercepted Rivers on the next possession, but the Chargers' defense held to set up Kaeding's third field goal.