Sunday, January 20, 2008 Updated: January 21, 11:42 PM ET
Whatever it takes, Patriots will win
By Gene Wojciechowski ESPN.com
Tom Brady was intercepted three times, but the Pats had too many weapons for San Diego.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- This is the greatest team of all time? This is the team that's going to have its team photo bronzed for posterity? The team that's supposed to make us forget about all those other great teams: the '72 Miami Dolphins, the '27 New York Yankees, the '01 Wilbon and Kornheiser?
The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that the 2007 New England Patriots are one game and one victory from the kind of perfection that no team, including those undefeated Dolphins of 35 seasons ago, has ever experienced.
Win Super Bowl XLII -- and they will -- and the Patriots will have no peer, no point of comparison.
One more win, said New England's football Yoda, linebacker Junior Seau, and they'll be "part of ever."
"Separating is key in history," said Seau, who has spent 18 seasons in this unforgiving league. "We have a chance."
The Patriots have more than a chance. They almost have an obligation to finish what they've started. Anything less would be like forgetting to wear pants with your tux.
Step No. 18 of their 19-step self-help program took place at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon. This time, it was the San Diego Chargers who had the misfortune of being between the Patriots and another AFC championship. And for more than a little while, it looked as if the Chargers might somehow pull off a second consecutive playoff upset.
But the Patriots aren't like the Indianapolis Colts, the team that blew its home-field advantage a week ago against these same Chargers. The Patriots aren't like anybody else.
NFL MVP Tom Brady threw three interceptions and the Patriots won. Randy Moss caught exactly one pass for 14 yards and the Patriots won. The Chargers had two first-and-goals and a first-and-10 from the New England 13 and the Patriots won. In fact, they didn't give up a touchdown in the 21-12 victory.
"The Patriots of old," is how linebacker Mike Vrabel described it.
"This is what we consider Patriots football," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said.
Patriots football isn't the 52-7 air show of Oct. 28 against Washington or the 56-10 humiliation of Buffalo on Nov. 18. It's what happened here in the late January cold, when the Patriots were forced to revert to their past championship DNA, which is to grind, to adapt and to prevail.
Canton isn't going to request the game film, but that's not the point. The Patriots did what they had to do. "[J]ust kind of hang around," is the way Vrabel put it.
Instead of giving up TDs, they gave up field goals. Instead of relaxing when Chargers star running back LaDainian Tomlinson and his injured knee became permanently attached to the bench, the Patriots played harder.
Second quarter. New England leads 7-6. Backup Patriots wide receiver Kelley Washington taps a punt back toward the field, and teammate Kyle Eckel downs it at the San Diego 4. Five plays later, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers throws an interception from his own 17. Two plays after that, the Patriots take a 14-6 lead on Brady's TD pass to Jabar Gaffney.
Third quarter. New England leads 14-9. Seau shoots the gap on a crucial third-and-1 at the New England 4 to stop Michael Turner for a 2-yard loss. The Chargers have to settle for another field goal.
Patriots football is what coach Bill Belichick said to Bruschi when they hugged just moments after the game.
"Great job in the red area," Belichick said.
Not, "We're going to the Super Bowl!" Not, "18-0, baby!" But, "Great job in the red area."
This is Belichick in a nutshell. This is the Patriots' celebrated culture in a nutshell. There is no "I" in New England. The Pats somehow have conditioned themselves to suppress their feelings about their football legacy.
Sure, it bubbles to the surface on occasion. Bruschi felt the pressure of an unbeaten season before the Patriots played the New York Giants in the final regular-season game.
"I think you could see it on our faces a little bit before the game," he said. "We knew [it] was a huge game and history was on the line," he said.
History remains on the line. Once again it is the Giants' turn to try to avert what seems to be inevitable. They got last crack at the Patriots in the regular season. Now they get last crack at them in the postseason.
Good luck. That's because the Patriots are the ultimate ant colony. Everybody works. Everybody has a role.
Belichick is the droll football savant. Brady is the extension of that genius. Seau is the emotional center. Bruschi and Vrabel are the cornerstones. Moss is the suddenly selfless receiver who knocked Chargers defensive end Luis Castillo out of the game on a clean block. Kevin Faulk is the third-down specialist.
"That's the money down," Seau reminded everyone in his postgame comments.
Faulk wore a long-sleeve blue T-shirt in the locker room after the game. On the front, in white lettering, was: We're All Just A Brotha From Another Motha.
Translation: "The family," said Faulk. "The Patriot family, that's all."
That's all? That's everything. It's why Seau left retirement, his surfboard and his San Diego beach two years ago when Belichick himself called and said, "Listen, I got a position for you." It's why Moss doesn't say a peep after a one-catch day. It's why Brady would run through two brick walls for these guys.
"There's been so much energy expended each week with the expectations and the pressure that our coach puts on us," Brady said. "I'm glad we have a week off. Regroup a little bit. Try to elevate our game for one last performance."
The expectations and pressure will grow exponentially in the next two weeks. If ever there was a team capable of handling them, this is the one.
After all, the Patriots have the most practice.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.