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 FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -Tom Brady hit Wes Welker for a 6-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter Sunday as the New England Patriots opened a 21-12 lead over the depleted San Diego Chargers in the AFC championship game and moved within 15 minutes of their fourth Super Bowl in seven seasons.
Brady also had three interceptions, costing New England a chance to pad its lead when Antonio Cromartie picked him off in the end zone late in the third quarter.
But hobbling quarterback Philip Rivers was unable to move San Diego into gusty New England wing, and when Brady got the ball back he looked more like the NFL MVP that helped the Patriots go unbeaten during the regular season.
A victory Sunday would give them a berth in the Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., on Feb. 3 and a chance to complete a perfect 19-0 season. The 1972 Miami Dolphins were the only NFL team to finish a season undefeated, winning all 17 of their games.
The Chargers gave the Patriots more of a struggle than many opponents this year despite missing running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates for most of the game. Rivers, who also missed practice this week with a strained right knee, did play but was picked off twice and couldn't get the Chargers into the end zone.
Nate Kaeding kicked four field goals to keep it close.
Laurence Maroney ran it in from 1 yard for New England's first touchdown, and Asante Samuel intercepted Rivers to set up Brady's 12-yard touchdown pass to Jabar Gaffney. Samuel knocked the ball away from Chris Chambers and picked it out of the air to set up the Patriots at the Chargers 24.
Two plays later, Brady hit Gaffney for his 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 Kaeding kicked his third field goal with 8 seconds left in the half to make it 14-9.
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 Tomlinson, the 2006 MVP, and Gates.
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.
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.
Brady drove New England to the Chargers 1, and Maroney ran it in from there to give the Patriots a 7-3 lead.

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