Monday January 21st, 2008

FOXBORO, Mass. -- History has been this team's constant companion all season, but in Sunday's AFC Championship Game in frigid Gillette Stadium, the New England Patriots put this one in the win column by looking to their own storied past rather than writing another gaudy chapter in the league record books.

This was the way the Patriots used to win games, long before the points-palooza of 2007 and chatter about a perfect season and running up the score became a near weekly refrain. New England didn't remotely dominate the San Diego Chargers in the AFC title game. All they did was defeat them, 21-12.

Eighteen down, one to go. Who's next?

"It was probably our turn to win a game,'' New England outside linebacker Mike Vrabel said, speaking on behalf of the defense. "That was the Patriots of old. Where you would just kind of hang around and make the big plays, and make the plays when it counted, and the defense would play well in the red zone and force them to kick field goals.''

It did all seem vaguely familiar. Reminiscent of how the blue-collar Patriots got things done in their previous Super Bowl seasons of 2001, 2003 and 2004, when they won with sturdy bend-but-don't-break defense, a propensity for takeaways, and just enough ball-control offense to get the job done. It was old-fashioned, conventional football, and for the most part it led to wins that were narrow, with New England needing to bleed the clock in the final minutes of the game to lock things down.

That was exactly the recipe for success on Sunday, when the Patriots limited the Chargers to four field goals, forced two San Diego turnovers, and held the ball for the staggering total of 9:13 to end the game. The Chargers' four best drives reached all the way to the New England 8, 5, 22 and 6 yard lines. And all that the Patriots allowed were four measly Nate Kaeding field goals.

This just in: You're simply not going to beat these Patriots scoring three points at a time.

"I mean, 52-7, I never was used to that,'' Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "It was something that even in all our championship years that never happened. That never happened on a consistent basis. We would have a blowout or two here or there, but never three, four, five in a row. These are the games we're used to. This is what we consider Patriot football.''

Patriots football has returned in the nick of time. New England's first 10 games this season were a weekly scoring-fest, but since that Week 12 close call at home against the Eagles, reality has made something of a comeback. And in the playoffs, New England has had two pretty close calls. The Patriots and Jaguars were tied 14-14 at halftime in the divisional round, before New England held Jacksonville to two second-half field goals in the 31-20 win. There was more of the same against the Chargers, in a game where no one held a double-digit lead.

On a night when Tom Brady threw a season-high three interceptions (he had eight in his first 17 games of the season) and Randy Moss caught all of one pass for 18 yards, the Patriots' record-setting offense had to take a backseat to what used to pass for sexy in New England: Stout red-zone defense.

"It was crucial that we had those red-zone stops,'' Bruschi said. "I mean, when you hug your coach after you've won the AFC Championship and the first thing he says is, 'Great job in the red area,' you know it was important. It's great to see in the biggest game of the year that we come up and force them to kick field goals, because when our offense can get in the end zone and [the Chargers] are scoring field goals, that puts us up.''

While New England's offense was scoring points at a dizzying pace for most of the season's first three months, the Patriots red-zone defense was actually one of its few weak links that head coach Bill Belichick had to harp on as perfection unfolded in Foxboro. But it doesn't really show up when you're winning by 34 points every week.

But it comes in darn handy at this time of year. Ask the Chargers. They were close enough on three occasions to sniff the end zone, but they never stepped foot into it with the ball. And having that defensive balance at last makes New England even more formidable as it heads for Glendale, Ariz., and its fourth Super Bowl appearance in seven years.

"Tom [Brady] can't throw for 400 yards for each and every week,'' Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said, absolving New England's offense of its less-than-overwhelming showing. "For our defense to get the red zone finally corrected for once, it felt pretty good because that's a point of emphasis that's so important.

"It's a four-point difference every time they're down there if they kick a field goal or score [a touchdown]. That was huge for us. And it's not bad for a bunch of old men that can't play any more.''

Those old men helped re-invent the Patriots' old winning formula against the Chargers. The season started with a string of 38-14 laughers in New England, but it's going to end with the defense standing shoulder to shoulder with the record-breaking Patriots offense. There's a sense of perfection to that, being able to win games a lot of different ways. Relying on every part of the roster to keep the victory machine running.

"Offense puts people in the seats, but defense wins championships,'' said Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs. "Tonight you saw that how time and time again those guys got into the red zone and time and time again we kept saying no, no, not today.''

And because of it, that still-awaited first loss of the season in New England was again not today. As the first 18-0 team in NFL history, only one more challenge awaits. New England doesn't care at this point if it has any domination left in its magical season. The pleasure of handing out one more defeat will do just quite nicely, thank you. Any way, any how. In old Patriots fashion, or not.

"Now we have one more game, one more game to be part of that forever,'' said New England linebacker Junior Seau of the Patriots' Super Bowl date with history. "That's special. We have a chance. And that's all we ever need. We work every day to position ourselves to have a chance on game day. And we do. We have that chance now.''

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