"I said to Tedy, 'Man, that was not easy.' He says to me, 'They never are buddy, they never are,' " Brady said.
As tough a win as it was for New England, it was a gut-wrenching loss for San Diego and its coach, Marty Schottenheimer, whose job could be in jeopardy after his career postseason record tumbled to 5-13.
Tomlinson shattered several league records in helping the Chargers go an NFL-best 14-2, including 8-0 at home in the regular season.
"I would never react in that way. I was very upset," Tomlinson said. "When you go to the middle of our field and start doing the dance Shawne Merriman is known for, that is disrespectful. They showed no class and maybe that comes from the head coach."
Merriman, nicknamed "Lights Out," did a spasmodic dance to celebrate each of his NFL-high 17 sacks.
"We lost to a better team today," Tomlinson said. "Hopefully the next opportunity we have we'll learn something from this."
Tomlinson ran for 123 yards and two scores, and caught two passes for 64 yards.
San Diego had nine players voted to the Pro Bowl team and five to the All-Pro team. And it had been supercharged by Tomlinson, who became the most prolific scorer in one season in NFL history with 31 touchdowns and 186 points while winning the rushing title with 1,815 yards.
But Brady is the one who's been there before in January. And nearly always has won -- it was Brady's sixth career game-winning drive in the playoffs, and his 24th overall.
Schottenheimer will no doubt be criticized for going for it on fourth-and-11 from the New England 30-yard line in the first quarter rather than having Kaeding try a field goal.
Although Schottenheimer has a year left on his contract, at more than $3 million, he and general manager A.J. Smith have had an icy relationship for months, and the front office felt this team was built for a Super Bowl run.
The Chargers had four turnovers -- they had only 15 in the regular season -- and made other critical mistakes.
"Anytime you're in the playoffs and lose, and certainly I have plenty of experience at it, there's a disappointment," Schottenheimer said.
Punt returner Eric Parker had a double muff to give the Patriots the ball on their 31 late in the third quarter. Following a third-and-13 on which Brady fumbled and Matt Light recovered, Chargers cornerback Drayton Florence head-butted tight end Daniel Graham and drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. That led to Gostkowski's 24-yard field that pulled the Patriots to 14-13.
Tomlinson scored on a 3-yard run with 8:35 left in the game for a 21-13 lead.
On the next Patriots drive, Brady was intercepted by safety Marlon McCree, who, rather than going down, tried for a return and was hit by Troy Brown and fumbled, with Caldwell recovering.
"There was a lot of gratification," Caldwell said. "I had a chance to come home and show what I could do and I think I made plays."
Tomlinson scored on a 2-yard run in the second quarter for a 7-3 lead. Later, he turned a screen pass into a brilliant 58-yard gain, leaving two defenders grasping at air while he scooted to the New England 6. His backup, Michael Turner, scored on the next play for a 14-3 lead.
Brady kept the Patriots in it by running the two-minute offense to perfection, pulling New England to 14-10 just before halftime. At the end of the 10-play, 72-yard drive, Brady had all day to throw a 6-yard pass to Jabar Gaffney in the back of the end zone.