By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
NOTE: This is the third installment in a series dedicated to the "forgotten" playoff games from the Patriots' 20-year run as kings of the NFL.
The Game: 2007 AFC Championship Game vs. San Diego Chargers
Location: Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.
It takes quite a lot for a conference championship game to become "forgotten." And really, the term may not be wholly inaccurate for this particular game, because the image of LaDainian Tomlinson standing idly on the sidelines with a coat over his shoulders while his quarterback played through a torn ACL remains embedded forever in the collective memory of every football fan.
Yet beyond that detail, much of the football events on Jan. 20, 2008 were either forgotten immediately or wiped away once the historic evening of Super Bowl XLII took place a couple of weeks later.
And digging into the vault for that frigid, blustery, gray Foxboro day, it shows that what took place at Gillette Stadium was an extraordinarily weird win for what was considered to be maybe the greatest football team of all time. Perhaps we should have seen this game as an omen of what was to come just 14 days later.
Surely, you're quite familiar with the 2007 Patriots. Undefeated regular season, records set by Tom Brady and Randy Moss, historic offense, fourth-ranked defense, a lock to become the NFL's first 19-0 team. You've heard of them.
The Chargers, meanwhile, had been kicking around for years as a Super Bowl contender, without ever really contending for a Super Bowl. They lost a wild-card game at home against the Jets in 2004, and they blew their home divisional matchup with the Patriots in 2006, leading to the firing of Marty Schottenheimer despite his 35-13 record in his final three years in San Diego.
So out went Schottenheimer and in came Norv Turner, who instantly helped the Chargers to their deepest playoff run since 1994. After a 5-5 start, the Chargers won six straight games to end the regular season at 11-5. They outscored opponents 183-75 during that winning streak, and they looked like a legitimate contender for the second straight year.
Or ... at least they'd be considered a contender if it was a normal year. This was not a normal year. The Patriots were undefeated and were going to remain that way through February. Everyone knew it. We just had to wait for it to become official.
These two teams, by the way, hated each other. Tomlinson's post-loss rant in San Diego a year earlier remained fresh on the minds of everyone in New England, and the sting of that playoff loss fueled the Chargers all season. The Patriots, meanwhile, had rallied around Bill Belichick all season long, so Tomlinson's commentary on the head coach likely surfaced once or twice during the week leading up to this game.
The playoff meeting was a rematch of the Chargers' Week 2 trip to Gillette, a game which the Patriots won 38-14. That was an early sign that this was going to be a special season for the Patriots, and the rematch (featuring a hobbled QB in Rivers, a hobbled running back in LaDainian Tomlinson, and a hobbled tight end in Antonio Gates) was not supposed to present any sort of real challenge.
It wasn't quite Titans-in-2003 levels of cold, but the chilly weather was no doubt a factor in this game, with gusts sending passes to the turf and wind chills to the single digits. Its effects were seen early.
After a three-and-out on the opening possession, Chargers punter Mike Scifres' first boot traveled just 34 yards. A 13-yard return by Wes Welker set up the NFL's best offense with possession near midfield. But a Richard Seymour running into the kicker penalty negated the play, the second punt was better, and the Patriots ended up gaining possession at their own 27-yard line.
Brady overthrew Kyle Brady by a mile on first down, Laurence Maroney ran for two yards on second down, and Brady had a semi-throwaway on third down to complete the three-and-out. The 2007 Patriots didn't often go three-and-out to start football games. Brady was 0-for-2 just a week after throwing two total incompletions in the divisional round. This was clearly going to be a different type of game.
The teams exchanged punts until the Patriots' third possession, when Brady sped up the process by throwing a pick to Quentin Jammer.
It was the first time Brady had thrown a pick in the first quarter all year, and the first time he had ever thrown a first-quarter interception in his postseason career.
That was followed up by a facemask penalty on Vince Wilfork, which allowed the Chargers to take a 3-0 lead on a 26-yard field goal.
Now trailing in their own stadium in what was supposed to be a perfect season, the Patriots woke up. Desperate to generate some offense, Brady handed to Moss on an end-around near midfield that picked up 14 yards.
Later on that drive, Laurence Maroney plunged in from the 1-yard line to give the Patriots a 7-3 lead.
But the Chargers mounted a 65-yard drive, settling for a field goal to cut that lead to 7-6. Later in the second quarter, though, pressure from Mike Vrabel forced Rivers to rush a pass over the middle, and Asante Samuel outmuscled Chris Chambers to make an interception.
Two plays later, Brady hit Jabar Gaffney in stride for a 12-yard touchdown. The two teams then exchanged three-and-outs, before Nate Kaeding booted a 40-yarder through the uprights to make the score 14-9 at halftime.
Things tightened up when Brady was picked off again on the opening possession of the second half, this one a deflected pass off the hands of Donte Stallworth and into the arms of Drayton Florence. The Chargers ended up threatening with a third-and-1 at the New England 4-yard line, but Junior Seau burst into the backfield to tackle Michael Turner for a loss of two yards. San Diego settled for a field goal to cut the lead to 14-12.
(This didn't fit anywhere else, so I'll jam it in here: Kelley Washington made a dynamite play to bat a punt out of the end zone. It was downed at the 4-yard line. It was a Matthew Slater-type play before anyone in New England knew what a Matthew Slater-type play was. OK back to the action.)
Once again, the Patriots woke up. Maroney broke an 18-yard gain two plays before Brady and Moss connected for 18 more yards. Maroney then took four straight carries, gaining 21 yards. An 8-yard connection with Wes Welker got the Patriots a third-and-goal from the 2-yard line.
It was then that Tom Brady inexplicably threw an end zone interception directly to Antonio Cromartie, immediately taking points off the board for the Patriots.
That marked the first three-interception game in Brady's playoff career. That it came at home against a team he had shredded earlier in the season was quite the surprise.
Fortunately for the Patriots, though, a Chargers defensive back made a foolish decision with regard to an ill-advised Tom Brady pass for the second straight postseason. It wasn't quite as bad as Marlon McCree's unnecessary pick in the '06 divisional round, but nevertheless, Cromartie's decision to run out of the end zone led to the Chargers starting their next drive at their own 4-yard line.
The Chargers would only make it to their own 20-yard line before having to punt.
Then, it was Laurence Maroney time.
Yes, you read that right.
It was Laurence Maroney time. And it was ... glorious?
The final scoring drive of the day began with a 13-yard catch-and-run to fullback Heath Evans. Then Maroney ran for four yards. A 10-yard bubble screen to Welker kept the chains moving, just in time for Maroney to break a 20-yard run.
The next play obviously went to Maroney again, this time with a screen pass that went for nine yards. Maroney ran for four yards on the next snap, picking up a first down.
Two plays later, on second-and-goal from the 6, Brady found Welker for a touchdown that gave the Patriots a nine-point lead with a little more than 12 minutes left in the game.
That score would prove to be enough, because ... Norv Turner elected to punt the football ... on a fourth-and-10 ... with 9:21 left in the game ... from the Patriots' 36-yard line ... while trailing by two scores.
The punt went 23 yards.
The Chargers never got the football again.
Yikes, Norval. Yikes.
Of course, Turner likely didn't envision the Patriots mounting a drive of more than nine minutes to end the game. But plays like this from Kevin Faulk ...
... and 37 more yards on eight carries for Maroney plus two chain-movers on third-down runs ...
... allowed the Patriots to drain that clock to zero and punch their ticket to Super Bowl XLII.
The 2007 season was largely about the sheer dominance of Tom Brady and the Patriots' unstoppable passing offense. Interestingly, that was all largely absent from the conference title game. Yet with 131 yards from scrimmage from Maroney, plus 90 yards from scrimmage from Faulk, the running back duo was able to shoulder the load needed to outlast a Chargers team that so desperately wanted to avenge the previous season's postseason defeat.
It was an off game for Brady, though he still delivered two crucial touchdowns while completing 66.7 percent of his passes on a very windy afternoon in Foxboro. The picks hurt, particularly the one in the end zone, but fortunately for the Patriots, they had Maroney. (That line was not uttered too often.) The second-year running back had just 16 rushing yards at halftime, but he'd run for 106 yards on 19 carries in the second half. Coming off an identical 122-yard, one-touchdown performance a week earlier in the divisional round, Maroney was a critical piece in the Patriots' reaching Super Bowl XLII.
Philip Rivers was just 19-for-37 for 211 yards with no touchdowns and two picks. Had he been fully healthy, and had Tomlinson been able to take more than a handful of snaps before bowing out, maybe the Chargers could have put forth a better fourth-quarter fight. It's an unknown that has lingered over the Chargers organization ever since, as the franchise has yet to make it that far in the playoffs.
Of course, the weather was not an insignificant factor in this game, but we still probably should have looked at the offensive struggles for the mighty Patriots and at least considered that scoring points against the Giants two weeks later. With the benefit of hindsight, this game clearly showed that the unthinkable upset was a very, very real possibility.
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