Already a three-time Super Bowl winner, his shot at a fourth is very much alive after the New England Patriots shocked league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson and the Chargers on Sunday, winning 24-21 to advance to the AFC championship game.
Brady overcame three interceptions, his career playoff high, to lead the Patriots to 11 points in 3:26 late in the game. He and coach Bill Belichick now have a 12-1 postseason record together, and need to win at Indianapolis next Sunday to make their fourth Super Bowl trip in six seasons.
Brady and linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who also helped the Patriots in their Super Bowl runs earlier this decade, walked off the field together.
“I said to Tedy, ‘Man, that was not easy.’ He says to me, ‘They never are buddy, they never are,”’ said Brady, 27-of-51 for 280 yards.
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.
Once it was over, Tomlinson, like Brady one of the most laid-back superstars in any sport, lost his cool. He went after an unidentified Patriots player and had to be restrained by a teammate and former Charger Reche Caldwell, who had a huge game for the Patriots.
Tomlinson yelled and pointed at the Patriots player, upset that some Patriots were dancing on the Chargers logo at midfield after they had silenced the record crowd of 68,810 at Qualcomm Stadium.
“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.
While the Chargers respected the mystique Brady and the Patriots had built with Super Bowl wins following the 2001, 2002 and 2004 seasons, they hoped to be the ones raising the Lombardi Trophy in Miami on Feb. 4.
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.
The winning points came on a 31-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski with 1:10 left. That capped a 72-yard drive highlighted by a 49-yard pass to Reche Caldwell, who left the Chargers as a free agent after last season.
With the Patriots trailing 21-13, Brady threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to the wide-open Caldwell with 4:36 to play. The Patriots tied it on a tricky 2-point conversion, snapping the ball directly to running back Kevin Faulk, who was standing next to Brady and ran through the middle of the line.
San Diego’s Pro Bowl kicker Nate Kaeding was short on a 54-yard field goal try with 3 seconds left.
Schottenheimer will no doubt be criticized for going for it on fourth-and-11 from the New England 30 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.
The Chargers challenged, but the play was upheld, and the Patriots had the ball at the Chargers 32. Five plays later, Brady hit Caldwell and Faulk added the conversion.
“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.
San Diego lost its fourth straight postseason game dating to the Super Bowl following the 1994 season … The kicker rookie Gostkowski replaced, Adam Vinatieri, kicked five field goals for all of Indianapolis’ points in a 15-6 win at Baltimore on Saturday.