FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -Asante Samuel intercepted Philip Rivers to set up Tom Brady's touchdown pass, and the New England Patriots pulled away from the depleted San Diego Chargers to take a 14-9 halftime lead Sunday in the AFC championship game.
Samuel knocked the ball away from Chris Chambers and picked it out of the air to set up the Patriots at the Chargers 24-yard line. Two plays later, Brady hit Jabar Gaffney for a 12-yard TD.
It was Brady's 14th consecutive playoff game with a touchdown pass, second in NFL history only to the 17-game streak Green Bay's Brett Favre brought into the NFC title game against the New York Giants.
Rivers was picked off again on the next drive when he tried to float a long pass to Chambers and Ellis Hobbs came down with it. But the Patriots punted, and then Nate Kaeding kicked his third field goal with 8 seconds left in the half to make it 14-6.
The winners of Sunday's games will play in the Super Bowl on Feb. 3 in Glendale, Ariz. If the Patriots make it, they'll have a chance to go 19-0 for the year and match the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only teams to complete an undefeated season.
After beating Indianapolis in a dome last Sunday and practicing all week in sunny San Diego, the Chargers tried to overcome 23-degree temperatures, gusty winds and the loss of 2006 NFL MVP LaDainian Tomlinson. Tomlinson, Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates all started after missing parts of practice with injuries during the week, but only Rivers returned for the Chargers' second possession.
The Patriots' attempt to extend their perfect season started slowly, with two punts - one more than in all of last week's playoff victory over Jacksonville - and an uncharacteristic bad pass by Brady that was intercepted by Quentin Jammer.
The pickoff set up Kaeding's first field goal, a 26-yarder.
Then Brady began playing like the NFL MVP who helped the Patriots win all 16 games in the regular season and their first playoff game. He drove New England to the Chargers 1, and Laurence Maroney ran it in from there to give the Patriots a 7-3 lead.
San Diego started the game with all three of its injured starters: Rivers, who sprained his right knee in last week's playoff victory over the Colts; Gates, who has a dislocated toe, and Tomlinson, who has a hyperextended left knee.
But Gates ran off to the locker room after the first series, and Tomlinson didn't last long, either. Rivers was 4-for-10 for 41 yards in the first quarter; and Tomlinson carried two times for 5 yards on the first drive and caught a swing pass on the second, but went to the bench after that.
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