Tom Brady¬†hadjust emerged from Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday, and as the NFL's most luminousstar strode slowly toward his loved ones on a cool San Diego evening, it dawnedon 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 chargingtoward its first-ever Super Bowl title, Brady threw three interceptions andsomehow walked off a winner. He shook his head almost apologetically as heneared a portable metal fence that cordoned off fans from the Pats' players andcoaches as they boarded the buses that would take them to the airport, anotherstop 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 hesaw his best friend since childhood, Kevin Brady--no relation, though youwouldn't know it from watching them interact--and waved him through a gap inthe fence. "You had no business winning that game," Kevin said as theyhugged, his voice hoarse from cheering. "No business!"
"I know,"Tom answered. "I know."
As the Chargersand their 68,810 deflated fans now know after New England's 24--21 divisionalplayoff victory, Brady's business is winning, even when he looks more like JoePisarcik than Joe Montana. On a day when league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson was histypically dazzling self, Brady struggled through 54 minutes of choppy footballbefore becoming smoother than Ron Burgundy, connecting on six of his final ninepasses for 100 yards. The last of Brady's 51 throws was also his prettiest, a49-yard sideline strike to wideout Reche (pronounced REE-shay) Caldwell to setup rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski's 31-yard game-winning field goal with 1:10remaining--which, in turn, set up a dream matchup against Peyton Manning andthe Indianapolis Colts in Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
"It tookeverybody we had to win," said Troy Brown, the Pats' 14th-year wideout, ashe left the locker room. "It's like a big puzzle--everybody's piece isimportant, and somehow, in the end, it all fits together perfectly."
Brown's pieceproved to be pivotal in a hard-fought game that ranked with the most puzzlingplayoff disappointments of San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer's star-crossedcareer. Though he has won more regular season games (200) than all but fourcoaches, including a league-best 14 in 2006, the 63-year-old Schottenheimer hasan unsightly 5--13 postseason mark, with zero Super Bowl appearances. This yearwas supposed to be different, and when San Diego pressured Brady into a hurriedthrow 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 toPartyball.
San Diego safetyMarlon McCree got a huge jump on Brady's pass to Brown and intercepted, takinga couple of steps toward what he hoped would be a long touchdown return to padthe Chargers' 21--13 lead. But Brown, a part-time defensive back, reached overMcCree's back and stripped the ball, which Caldwell recovered at the San Diego32. "Troy saved our season," Brady said. "Without that play, we'reflying home losers tonight."
Five plays afterBrown threw down, it was Brady's turn to cowboy up: He rolled to his left andfound Caldwell alone in the end zone for a four-yard touchdown that cut thelead to 21--19 with 4:30 remaining. New England tied it on a two-pointconversion when Brady, out of the shotgun, made a convincing fake as runningback Kevin Faulk took a direct snap from center Dan Koppen and slipped into theend zone--the same play the Patriots converted successfully in the fourthquarter of their Super Bowl XXXVIII victory over the Carolina Panthers threeseasons ago.
New England thenforced a punt, putting Brady once again on the clock. Facing third-and-10 fromhis own 34, the quarterback was given a play-call that included several routeoptions for his receivers. He knew exactly where he wanted to go. "Who'sthe F [flanker] on this play?" Brady asked in the huddle. Caldwell raisedhis hand. "Shady," Brady said, addressing the wideout by his nickname,"I just want you to run a Go." Caldwell, who spent his first fourseasons 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 rightsideline. Brady floated a pinpoint pass that Caldwell caught just inside theChargers' 35. He kept sprinting until his momentum carried him out-of-bounds atthe 17.
Brady to Shady,and the three Corey Dillon runs that followed, teed it up perfectly forGostkowski. The rookie, who'd already nailed field goals of 50 and 34 yardswithout a miss, continued his impersonation of his ultraclutch predecessor,Adam Vinatieri--who'll also be waiting in Indy. The Chargers, after getting theball to the Pats' 36, weren't so fortunate: Pro Bowl kicker Nate Kaeding misseda 54-yarder with three seconds to go.
Emotions ran highafter the final gun, when several Patriots ran to midfield to mock the LightsOut sack dance of San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman. That enraged thenormally unflappable Tomlinson, who tried to charge the pack of New Englandplayers before being restrained by teammates. "The Patriots know we'rebetter than them," Chargers linebacker Stephen Cooper said as he walkedthrough the Qualcomm parking lot after the game. "We stopped their runninggame, and we had three interceptions--and it should've been five or six. But welet them hang around."
How many times didwe hear that from a player who'd just had his season ended by Montana or JohnElway? 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 whatwe're capable of," Brady said on Sunday, shortly before joining histeammates on the bus. "But we accept the challenge, and we just keepplugging away."
Now they'll chargeinto Peyton's Place for a sublime Sunday showdown between the game's bestquarterbacks, with a Super Bowl berth--and so much history--at stake. So whatif Brady almost didn't make their date? He'll still show up, just as he alwaysdoes this time of year.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
Brady (far right) atoned for his mistakes with a perfect strike to Caldwell(above).
[See Caption Above.]