Patriots bend, but don't break, to slow Chargers

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots are heading to the Super Bowl with a defense that kept the San Diego Chargers out of the end zone in Sunday's AFC championship game.

Three times the Chargers moved inside the 10-yard line and three times the unbeaten Patriots held them to a field goal, a huge factor in New England's 21-12 victory.

"Defense wins championships," cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. "Tonight you saw that, how time and time again those guys got in the red zone and time and time again we kept saying, `no, no, no, no, not today' -- making them score field goals and eventually the offense started clicking."

Flash back to eight days earlier and gauge the improvement: Jacksonville scored two touchdowns when it got inside the New England 10, but still lost 31-20 in the divisional playoff game.

This time, the Patriots (18-0) intercepted two of Philip Rivers' passes, one leading to a touchdown, and erased any doubts their linebackers were too old or their defensive backs too slow.

They are, simply, too good.

The Patriots showed the second half of the season they could win close games after beating their first eight opponents by at least 17 points each.

"Even in all our championship years that never happened on a consistent basis," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "These are the games we're used to. This is what we consider Patriots football."

The Patriots' first big defensive stop came late in the first quarter when San Diego had a first-and-goal at the Patriots 9-yard line. Michael Turner ran for just 1 yard, Rivers followed with two incompletions and Nate Kaeding kicked a 26-yard field goal to make it 3-0.

Trailing 7-3 in the second quarter, the Chargers moved from their 30 to another first-and-goal at the 9.

Turner rushed for 1 yard. Rivers then threw toward Antonio Gates, but linebacker Bruschi dove in front of him at the last second to slap the ball away near the goal line. Rivers then hit Chris Chambers in the left flat, but Hobbs made an open-field tackle at the 5.

"I'm the last line of defense," Hobbs said. "I knew if he got past me that was it. He had cut back out on Rodney (Harrison) and my thing was just get him down anyway you can, just shoot at his legs, can't run without those."

The Chargers settled for another field goal, this one for just 23 yards that cut the lead to 7-6.

With the Patriots ahead 14-9, Rivers led the Chargers downfield again.

With a third-and-2 at the New England 4, Turner took the handoff and started up the middle. But linebacker Junior Seau penetrated, forcing Turner to veer left, and Seau tackled him for a 2-yard loss.

No first down. No chance for a touchdown.

"The defensive linemen did a great job of taking up two guys," said Seau, who shot through the gap. "It was a great call."

Kaeding came out again and kicked a 24-yard field goal, another wasted opportunity and a 14-12 lead for New England.

It was 21-12 when San Diego started moving again, from its 16 to a third-and-10 at the New England 36.

This time, the aggressive Harrison ran in from Rivers' right side, hit the quarterback as he was throwing and forced an incompletion.

"I was able to just come free," Harrison said. "I think he felt my pressure and he got rid of the ball, and every time you get a shot on the quarterback, you want to try to knock their lights out."

With 9:21 left, San Diego was forced to punt and Kaeding never saw the field again.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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