January 16, 2007

Tom Brady had just emerged from Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday, and as the NFL's most luminous star strode slowly toward his loved ones on a cool San Diego evening, it dawned on him how crazy it all was. In a season in which the New England Patriots' dynasty had never looked more vulnerable, against a loaded home team charging toward its first-ever Super Bowl title, Brady threw three interceptions and somehow walked off a winner. He shook his head almost apologetically as he neared a portable metal fence that cordoned off fans from the Pats' players and coaches as they boarded the buses that would take them to the airport, another stop on what they hope is the road to a fourth championship in six seasons. Before getting smoochy with his parents, sisters and nieces, Brady smiled as he saw his best friend since childhood, Kevin Brady -- no relation, though you wouldn't know it from watching them interact -- and waved him through a gap in the fence. "You had no business winning that game," Kevin said as they hugged, his voice hoarse from cheering. "No business!"

"I know," Tom answered. "I know."

As the Chargers and their 68,810 deflated fans now know after New England's 24-21 divisional playoff victory, Brady's business is winning, even when he looks more like Joe Pisarcik than Joe Montana. On a day when league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson was his typically dazzling self, Brady struggled through 54 minutes of choppy football before becoming smoother than Ron Burgundy, connecting on six of his final nine passes for 100 yards. The last of Brady's 51 throws was also his prettiest, a 49-yard sideline strike to wideout Reche (pronounced REE-shay) Caldwell to set up rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski's 31-yard game-winning field goal with 1:10 remaining -- which, in turn, set up a dream matchup against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in Sunday's AFC Championship Game.

"It took everybody we had to win," said Troy Brown, the Pats' 14th-year wideout, as he left the locker room. "It's like a big puzzle -- everybody's piece is important, and somehow, in the end, it all fits together perfectly."

Brown's piece proved to be pivotal in a hard-fought game that ranked with the most puzzling playoff disappointments of San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer's star-crossed career. Though he has won more regular season games (200) than all but four coaches, including a league-best 14 in 2006, the 63-year-old Schottenheimer has an unsightly 5-13 postseason mark, with zero Super Bowl appearances. This year was supposed to be different, and when San Diego pressured Brady into a hurried throw over the middle on fourth-and-five from the Chargers' 41 with 6:25 to go, it looked for a few seconds as though Martyball was about to give way to Partyball.

San Diego safety Marlon McCree got a huge jump on Brady's pass to Brown and intercepted, taking a couple of steps toward what he hoped would be a long touchdown return to pad the Chargers' 21-13 lead. But Brown, a part-time defensive back, reached over McCree's back and stripped the ball, which Caldwell recovered at the San Diego 32. "Troy saved our season," Brady said. "Without that play, we're flying home losers tonight."

Five plays after Brown threw down, it was Brady's turn to cowboy up: He rolled to his left and found Caldwell alone in the end zone for a four-yard touchdown that cut the lead to 21-19 with 4:30 remaining. New England tied it on a two-point conversion when Brady, out of the shotgun, made a convincing fake as running back Kevin Faulk took a direct snap from center Dan Koppen and slipped into the end zone -- the same play the Patriots converted successfully in the fourth quarter of their Super Bowl XXXVIII victory over the Carolina Panthers three seasons ago.

New England then forced a punt, putting Brady once again on the clock. Facing third-and-10 from his own 34, the quarterback was given a play-call that included several route options for his receivers. He knew exactly where he wanted to go. "Who's the F [flanker] on this play?" Brady asked in the huddle. Caldwell raised his hand. "Shady," Brady said, addressing the wideout by his nickname, "I just want you to run a Go." Caldwell, who spent his first four seasons in San Diego before the Patriots signed him as a free agent last March, beat cornerback Quentin Jammer's press coverage and streaked down the right sideline. Brady floated a pinpoint pass that Caldwell caught just inside the Chargers' 35. He kept sprinting until his momentum carried him out-of-bounds at the 17.

Brady to Shady, and the three Corey Dillon runs that followed, teed it up perfectly for Gostkowski. The rookie, who'd already nailed field goals of 50 and 34 yards without a miss, continued his impersonation of his ultraclutch predecessor, Adam Vinatieri -- who'll also be waiting in Indy. The Chargers, after getting the ball to the Pats' 36, weren't so fortunate: Pro Bowl kicker Nate Kaeding missed a 54-yarder with three seconds to go.

Emotions ran high after the final gun, when several Patriots ran to midfield to mock the Lights Out sack dance of San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman. That enraged the normally unflappable Tomlinson, who tried to charge the pack of New England players before being restrained by teammates. "The Patriots know we're better than them," Chargers linebacker Stephen Cooper said as he walked through the Qualcomm parking lot after the game. "We stopped their running game, and we had three interceptions -- and it should've been five or six. But we let them hang around."

How many times did we hear that from a player who'd just had his season ended by Montana or John Elway? Brady now has 24 comeback victories in his six years as a starter, including six of his 12 postseason wins. "People all year have doubted what we're capable of," Brady said on Sunday, shortly before joining his teammates on the bus. "But we accept the challenge, and we just keep plugging away."

Now they'll charge into Peyton's Place for a sublime Sunday showdown between the game's best quarterbacks, with a Super Bowl berth -- and so much history -- at stake. So what if Brady almost didn't make their date? He'll still show up, just as he always does this time of year.

Issue date: January 22, 2007

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