Sooner or later, when you put your team in the hands of an obscure sixth-round draft pick from Michigan, this is what happens. You go out there and you just try not to make the quarterback do too much and hope that your defense turns to iron when it counts and your running game can bleed the clock long enough so that you can win. After all, it's not like the guy was the first pick in the draft, like Eli Manning of the New York Giants—or even the guy who got traded for Manning, like San Diego's Philip Rivers, last seen moaning and groaning and doing the death scene from Camille on the opposite sideline from where the New England Patriots were gathered on Sunday. And the futile national festival of hateration gets to live on for another two weeks, despite the fact that Tom Brady did not play at all well, which is not going to happen indoors in Arizona the way it did outdoors in Foxboro, Mass. This was your chance, all of you people whose dreams are haunted by a dour old spirit in a gray hoodie. This was the game where Tom Brady was not really Tom Brady for long stretches, which is really the only chance any NFL team has against New England. This was your chance, and it's gone now and it's not coming back.
To his credit, Brady managed the game brilliantly, even in the face of his three interceptions. The last of these came in the third quarter, on a third-and-goal from the San Diego 2-yard line, when Brady simply lost track of San Diego cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who rose up and picked off a pass intended for New England tight end Benjamin Watson on the back line of the end zone. (We pause here to note that Brady throws a red-zone interception on the average of once every two years.) The score at the time was a razorish 14-12. There was just a glimmering in the frost that all those fervent, bitter prayers offered up in, say, Indianapolis might have found a willing Ear. However, as St. John of the Cross once said, deep in spiritual transport: "Yeah, right. Whatever."
The New England defense stoned the Chargers into a three-and-out. Once he got the ball back, Brady led a drive that carried over from the third quarter to the fourth, and ended with a zippy little pass to Wes Welker, who fell into the end zone to give the Patriots a 21-12 lead that might as well have been 121-12. Brady was seven-for-seven for 63 yards in the final quarter as New England methodically ground out the game. He mixed up screen passes and running plays, handing the ball off to Laurence Maroney, the suddenly ferocious young running back who put 122 yards on the Chargers, none more memorable than the first-down run on which he put his helmet down the gullet of a San Diego defensive back and knocked the guy bolt-over-teakettle for about 5 yards.
Later, Brady got the most important third-down conversion on a play where he laid a pass out and had the confidence that Kevin Faulk would be able to dive and get it. Compare Brady's performance with the brain-dead one submitted by Green Bay's Brett Favre against the Giants, firing a frozen football blindly 40 yards upwind downfield. Brady simply doesn't do that. His greatest gift always has been his ability to go completely egoless while playing a position designed for egomaniacs.
For all the flash and dash of this season, the hallmark of the Belichick era has been intelligent, remorseless efficiency. (This was what once led unenlightened souls to call the team boring.) They simply make more big plays at more big moments than the other team does, and they do that because almost every game situation has been analyzed and rehearsed long before it happens. On Sunday, when it became clear that the weather wasn't going to allow for the deep ball, the Patriots and Brady ran the Chargers through every page of the offensive syllabus. Randy Moss' biggest play was an end-around. There were offensive sets with four tight ends, and others with five men set wide, including fullback Heath Evans, an alignment which was as surprising as finding a dray horse in the five-hole at Churchill Downs. All of this went off seamlessly, and the defense picked up whatever was left.
For the past month, people have whispered—well, the people on local radio have screamed it, but unless you're in the market for hair-replacement products, that shouldn't ever matter—that the New England defense might be suspect. The linebackers were old, Junior Seau admittedly having lost a step from his days with the Decatur Staleys. The secondary was vulnerable. What was lost in this line of reasoning is how smart and prepared the defense always is. In the last nine games, the New England defense has surrendered 57 points in the second half. In the two playoff games, it has given up a mere three field goals after halftime. Somebody's coaching during halftime, and somebody's surely listening.
So, when Norv Turner inevitably turned into Norv Turner again, the New England defense pounced. In the third quarter, set up at the Patriots' 4-yard line, San Diego ran an idiotic sweep with half its line pulling. Seau came roaring up from 1992, shooting the gap behind the guard, and dropping Michael Turner for a loss that forced another field goal. A little while later, with nine minutes left, facing a fourth-and-10 from the New England 36, Turner inexplicably elected to punt. San Diego never saw the ball again. Perhaps the New England defense made him nervous. Perhaps he knew he was facing a sixth-round draft pick from Michigan who wasn't having his best day. Or, more likely, Norv Turner isn't Bill Belichick. Pray harder, you sons of Indy. It isn't going to help.