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No offense, but defense carries Patriots in AFC title game

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Through most of the New England Patriots' three Super Bowl journeys this decade, they were defined by their grind-it-out nature.

Their defense was strong and often too complicated for opponents to figure out. Their offense was sound. Their special teams were clutch.

The Patriots' general approach was to wait for the other team to commit mistakes and then pounce. They didn't generate a whole lot of big plays or score a whole lot of points. They simply did enough to win, a formula that worked for three Vince Lombardi trophies.

For a good portion of the regular season, the 2007 Patriots were radically different. Tom Brady and his new cast of receivers piled up yards and points, and rarely asked the defense -- supposedly too old and vulnerable to carry a game on its collective shoulder pads -- to do a whole lot more than come along for the ride to perfection.

Then came Sunday's 21-12 victory over the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship Game.

Brady and his receivers didn't own this day. In fact, there were times when it seemed they were trying to gift-wrap it for the Chargers. Brady threw three interceptions. Randy Moss caught one pass.

The biggest reason the Patriots are playing in their fourth Super Bowl since 2001, with a chance to be the only team in NFL history to go 19-0 when they face the New York Giants in two weeks in Glendale, Ariz., is that they held the Chargers to four field goals -- three after they drove inside the New England 10-yard line.

"Fifty-two to seven ... I never was used to that," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said of the blowout victories the Patriots had routinely registered during the regular season. "It was something, even in all of our championship years, that never happened on a consistent basis. Never three, four, five in a row. These are the games we're used to. This is what we consider 'Patriot' football."

"It was probably our turn to win a game," added linebacker Mike Vrabel. "That was the Patriots of old, where you just kind of hang around, make the big plays and make the plays when it counted."

Among those plays was the 34-year-old Bruschi knocking down a Philip Rivers pass intended for tight end Antonio Gates at the goal line on second-and-goal from the New England 8-yard line early in the second quarter. The Chargers ended up settling for Nate Kaeding's second field goal.

Another such play was 39-year-old linebacker Junior Seau shooting the gap to throw running back Michael Turner -- who played most of the game because LaDainian Tomlinson was out with an injured knee suffered in San Diego's divisional-round win over Indianapolis -- for a 2-yard loss on third-and-1 from the Patriots 6. Kaeding's fourth field goal followed.

"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," Bruschi said. "We had our struggles (in the red zone) early in the year, then we made some progress, and then we made a little more progress. It's great to see, in the biggest game of the year, that we came up and forced them to kick field goals."

New England's stellar defensive effort also included intercepting a pair of passes from Rivers, who finished 19-for-37 for 211 yards and a passer rating of 46.1.

Rivers' struggles weren't exactly a major surprise. For one thing, he was playing on a sore knee that at times seemed to affect his ability to plant and throw. For another, it was his first appearance in a conference championship game.

Brady's struggles were shocking. With three Super Bowl victories and two Super Bowl MVPs, he clearly should have had no trouble handling pressure. He also has been performing better than perhaps any quarterback in league history, winning NFL MVP with a record-shattering 50 touchdown passes.

But Brady -- who finished 22-for-33 for 209 yards and a pair of scores and a passer rating of 66.4 -- responded to the Chargers' defense taking away the big play by making a number of smaller ones with throws to running back Kevin Faulk, who caught a game-high eight passes for 82 yards.

Faulk's receiving and Laurence Maroney's rushing (he finished with a game-high 122 yards) went a long way toward allowing New England to mount a marathon drive that killed the game's final 9:13. Faulk made a huge play by extending to catch an 11-yard pass on third-and-11.

Brady can recall when the Patriots regularly won the kind of game they won Sunday. He's happy that they can still lean on their defense when the offense failed to show the explosiveness that allowed the Pats to set an NFL scoring record.

"It's nice to know you can win the close ones," Brady said. "It's nice to know you can win the ones when you face some adversity and you've got to be mentally tough."

The Patriots didn't show a great deal of mental toughness in last year's AFC title game. They squandered an 18-point lead on the way to losing to the Colts.

They could have used the sort of effort they showed Sunday, especially on defense. If so, they might be looking to again win their fifth Super Bowl and second set of back-to-back crowns.

"It was so disappointing last season," Brady said. "I remember leaving on the bus at Indianapolis and just reflecting on how close we were and how disappointing it was knowing that there was another team that was going instead of us. And now we can look at where we are now and be proud of what we've accomplished thus far, but realize there's a greater challenge ahead."

The challenge facing the Patriots is far greater than trying to win a fourth Super Bowl. When you're 18-0, you have got to go 19-0. Otherwise, your season is remembered much more for what it wasn't than what it was.

But just as they demonstrated during their previous Super Bowl runs and just as they demonstrated on Sunday, the Patriots can rise to the occasion.

"If I felt any pressure this year, it was before the Giant game, when we realized (finishing the regular season 16-0) was possible to be achieved," Bruschi said. "Once the postseason comes around -- we've been in the postseason so many times -- it's about winning the next game, it's about winning the next play. That's really our focus now."

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