NFL Championship Games Are Set: Bears vs. Saints, Patriots vs. Colts
The San Diego Chargers gave Tom Brady one chance too many, and that's all the three-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback needed.
Brady and the New England Patriots shocked league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson and the Chargers on Sunday, winning 24-21 to move within one win of their fourth Super Bowl trip in six seasons.
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 and are heading to Indianapolis for the AFC championship game next Sunday.
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. And nearly always has won.
He left behind some frustrated Chargers, including Tomlinson, who went after an unidentified Patriots player when the game ended. Tomlinson ran for 123 yards and two scores, and caught two passes for 64 yards.
Tomlinson said he was 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 and wrecked the Chargers' season.
``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 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.''
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.
Coincidentally, the man the rookie Gostkowski replaced, Adam Vinatieri, kicked five field goals for all of Indianapolis' points in a 15-6 win at Baltimore on Saturday.
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.
It was a crunching end to San Diego's season, and could lead to coach Marty Schottenheimer's ouster.
Behind Tomlinson, the Chargers went an NFL-best 14-2, including going 8-0 at home in the regular season.
Schottenheimer fell to 5-13 in the postseason, with Cleveland, Kansas City and San Diego. Although he 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.
Schottenheimer will no doubt be criticized for going for it on fourth-and-11 from the New England 30-yard line in the fourth quarter rather than having Kaeding try a field goal.
Philip Rivers, the Chargers' first-year starting quarterback, was sacked by Mike Vrabel and fumbled, giving the Patriots the ball at their 35.
San Diego lost its fourth straight postseason game dating to the Super Bowl following the 1994 season.
Chicago Advances to NFC Championship Game
Two swings of the foot by Robbie Gould were all the Chicago Bears needed to offset any shortcomings in Rex Grossman's arm.
And the Chicago Bears got their first playoff win since 1995, moving them one step from the Super Bowl.
Gould, working construction 16 months ago, cleared a path for the Bears with his strong leg Sunday, kicking a 49-yard field goal in overtime for a 27-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. The game-winner came shortly after Grossman got them in position with a clutch pass to Rashied Davis.
``A year ago I'm pounding nails. Now I'm hitting game-winning kicks and going to the NFC championship game,'' Gould said. ``I didn't even watch the end of it. I hit it right where I wanted it to go.''
Where the Bears want to go is their first Super Bowl in 21 years. Chicago will host the Saints next Sunday in the NFC championship game; New Orleans never has been this far.
``We win one game and we're in the Super Bowl,'' Grossman said, ``two wins away from having a ring on my finger for the rest of my life.''
Grossman, one of the most scrutinized figures in the football-crazed city for his inconsistent performances, set up the kick with his pass to Davis.
``In every game you're not going to play perfect. There were several situations where I wish I would've had a few plays back, but for the most part I'm pleased,'' Grossman said.
Grossman completed 21-of-38 for 282 yards with an interception and a fumble. It was quite an upgrade from his final performance of the regular season, when he had a quarterback rating of 0.0 in a loss to Green Bay.
Seattle got the ball first in overtime, but Chicago's Israel Idonije forced an 18-yard punt by Ryan Plackemeier with a strong rush. Grossman hit Davis for a third-down pass of 30 yards to the Seattle 36.
``I've learned that he knows how to bounce back from tough situations,'' coach Lovie Smith said of Grossman. ``He's been roasted the past couple weeks over all different kinds of things. He is our quarterback. ... There was a lot of pressure on him and our entire football team and I thought they handled it well.''
The unheralded Davis is a former Arena League player.
``After I got up, I screamed. It was probably the biggest catch I made in my life,'' Davis said.
Gould, who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent and is now headed to the Pro Bowl, made his first 24 field goals this season, and 32 of 36 overall. His 41-yarder with 4:24 left Sunday just cleared the crossbar and tied the game at 24.
The Bears had won a division title and earned a first-round bye in their previous two playoff appearances, only to lose their first game at home, so their elation was tinged with relief.
The Seahawks (10-8), ravaged by injuries throughout the season, got a strong performance from Shaun Alexander. Alexander, who missed the first meeting between the teams, a 37-6 Chicago win in October, gained 108 yards and gave the Bears' defense a tough time. He had a pair of touchdowns runs.
``It's hard to say `If we had this or that,''' Alexander said. ``It was, `Nah we came up short.''
Late in the fourth quarter, the Bears stacked up Alexander on third-and-1 for no gain at the Chicago 44, and the Seahawks decided to go for it. But Matt Hasselbeck bobbled the snap and Lance Briggs threw Alexander for a 2-yard loss, turning the ball over to the Bears with just under two minutes to go.
``If the snap was smooth, I could have run for a TD,'' Alexander said. ``It was definitely the best I felt all season running the ball.''
After a short completion and two of Grossman's passes were deflected - one nearly intercepted - the Bears punted.
The Seahawks got the ball at the 20 with 1:38 to go and moved to the Bears 45 before Tank Johnson, whose legal problems have been a headache for his team this season, sacked Hasselbeck.
Davis made his catch when Jordan Babineaux let him get past the line. Babineaux, who also missed an early interception Saturday, hauled down Tony Romo after he bobbled the snap on a field goal attempt in Seattle's 21-20 victory over Dallas last weekend.
``We had this game,'' Babineaux said of Sunday's disheartening loss. ``My job was to reroute the receiver (Davis) and he got behind me real quick. I was supposed to knock him off his route.''
Last year's NFC champs took their first lead in the third quarter and momentarily silenced the bundled up crown at Soldier Field - temperatures were in the 30s - when Alexander ran up the middle for a 13-yard TD on a third-and-10 to make it 24-21.
Earlier, as Gould made a field goal that would have tied the game, Seattle's Leroy Hill was called for jumping up and trying to induce a false start. Instead of the three points, the Bears got 5 extra yards on the penalty and a first down at the Seattle 13.
But Grossman's pass went off Muhsin Muhammad's shoulder pad and Pete Hunter, who had been working in a mortgage office before being signed before the playoffs, intercepted early in the fourth quarter.
Hasselbeck gave it right back on first down when his pass was intercepted by Ricky Manning Jr. at the 32. The Bears couldn't convert and punted.
Seattle moved swiftly to the Bears 21 on the opening series of the second half, but Briggs knocked Alexander back for a 1-yard loss on third-and-1. Josh Brown connected on a 40-yard field goal that got the Seahawks within 21-17.
Alexander showed at times why he was the 2005 MVP. In the second quarter, he broke off a 13-yard run, and on fourth-and-1 from the Bears 4, he bulled his way into the end zone to make it 14-14 with 2:29 left in the first half. The score was set up by Grossman's fumble.
But the Bears didn't run out the clock. Grossman rebounded from the turnover, finding Muhammad for 21 yards and Davis with an 18-yarder to the 16.
Muhammad grabbed another pass to the 7, and Thomas Jones ran in for the score on fourth down for a 21-14 lead.
Jones opened the scoring with a for a 9-yard TD to cap a 12-play, 80-yard drive that opened the game.
Seattle got even early in the second quarter. Hasselbeck hit passes of 24 and 14 yards to Darrell Jackson, the Seahawks' leading receiver who's been bothered by a sore toe. Nate Burleson powered his way into the end zone to complete a 16-yard scoring pass play.
The tie lasted 18 seconds. Grossman hit a streaking Bernard Berrian in stride behind rookie corner Kelly Jennings, who was picked on all day, for a 68-yard TD pass.
Notes: The Bears are in the NFC title game for the first time since Jan. 8, 1989, when they were beaten by the 49ers. ... Bears specialist Devin Hester, who set an NFL record with six kick returns for TDs this season, almost had another in the fourth quarter. His 63-yarder was called back for an illegal block on Manning Jr.
By: Michael Cash - theSpread.com - Email Us
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