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Patriots' supporting cast leads way to Super Bowl

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Randy Moss had one catch and a 14-yard run on a reverse in Sunday's AFC Championship Game. Tom Brady threw three interceptions for the first time this season.

The New England Patriots won 21-12 because subpar games by their stars are rarely a problem.

They won because players like Laurence Maroney, Kevin Faulk, Jabar Gaffney and a host of other supporting players showed up against San Diego and helped send the Patriots to the Super Bowl.

It's also why they are now the first team in NFL history to go 18-0 in a single season.

This was the second straight game Moss was shut down. After one reception for 14 yards in the win over Jacksonville a week ago, he had one catch for 18 yards as well as that run on which he used his athletic ability to turn what easily could have been a loss into a gain.

This one was even harder because Brady was nearly perfect a week ago when he was 26-of-28. He was a lot less than that Sunday. With three minutes left in the first quarter, he was 2-of-5 for 20 yards with an interception and an almost invisible passer rating of 4.2

Brady went on to throw two more interceptions, one of them on a third-and-goal from the San Diego 2-yard line with the Patriots holding a 16-12 lead in the third quarter.

"I've played with Tom for eight years," Faulk said. "I've seen him throw three interceptions before. He's done it a few times."

Faulk, in fact, is the quintessential Patriots player.

He is 5-foot-9, 205 pounds, 31 years old and balding. Even a little pudgy. See him out of uniform and you think "accountant," or "insurance man." Something sedentary, although he is one guy his teammates expect to become a coach when his playing career is over.

In other words, Faulk is exactly what Bill Belichick wants in his players, especially his veterans.

So while Moss, doubled-covered by one of the NFL's better secondaries, was catching one pass from Brady, Faulk was catching eight for 82 yards out of the backfield. He was working in tandem with Maroney, who rushed for 122 yards -- 106 in the second half -- running out the clock and allowing Brady to avoid risking the winds that played a part in his interception troubles.

The series that was most reflective of the game came in the second quarter, with San Diego dominating -- or at least dominating the yardage and time of possession. The Chargers were trailing 7-6 because they couldn't score when they got close, a tribute to the tenacity of the New England defense.

Then Asante Samuel jumped in front of Chris Chambers and grabbed a pass from the hobbled Philip Rivers, setting the Patriots up at the San Diego 24.

On the first play, Faulk eased out of the backfield and caught a short toss from Brady that put the ball at the 12-yard line. On the next play, Brady tossed a short pass over the middle to Gaffney, who took it in for the score that made it 14-6 and put the Patriots in a position where it seemed unlikely they would be threatened the rest of the game.

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None of this is new, certainly not in this 18-0 season.

And Gaffney, Maroney and Faulk weren't the only ones.

Kelley Washington, the fifth wide receiver, saved a punt that seemed headed into the end zone when he jumped and knocked it back. It was downed at the San Diego 4, eventually leading to the Samuel interception and the Gaffney touchdown.

Gaffney, who is fourth on the receiving tree behind Moss, Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth, was the hero in perhaps New England's closest victory this season -- the 27-24 win in Baltimore in which he caught the winning touchdown pass after a couple of fourth-down penalties prolonged a late drive.

Most teams with a player like Randy Moss would be dead if their star receiver had two catches for 32 yards in two playoff games.

"All those players are what we are about," Belichick said. "That's how we build our team and that's how we play."

These are the New England Patriots. They are 18-0.

Players like Kevin Faulk and Jabar Gaffney are the reasons they will be 19-0. Not necessarily the Tom Bradys and Randy Mosses.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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