Patriots rebound from AFC title game loss last year to reach Super Bowl Print
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Wednesday, 23 January 2008 13:24
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 FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -The Patriots needed just 4 yards for a first down late in last year's AFC championship game. Succeed and they'd almost certainly reach the Super Bowl.
They failed.
``All the hard work in the offseason, preseason, the regular season,'' New England owner Robert Kraft said in an interview with The Associated Press in his Gillette Stadium office. ``And then, boom! It's cruel the way it ends. It's really cruel.''
He watched Tom Brady's short pass to Troy Brown fall incomplete on third down at the New England 46-yard line with 2:27 left in Indianapolis. The Patriots had to punt and the Colts took over at their 20 with 2:17 and just one timeout left.
Peyton Manning went to work, eating up chunks of yardage.
With the clock showing 1:00, Joseph Addai ran in for the winning touchdown before an RCA Dome full of ecstatic fans, completing a comeback from a 21-3 deficit to a 38-34 win.
The Colts went on to win the Super Bowl. The Patriots went home.
``We'll come back next year and try to do it better,'' a despondent Brady said afterward.
How's this for better?
The Patriots haven't lost since.
Last Sunday, they weren't about to give up the ball late in their 21-12 win over the San Diego Chargers, which put them in the Super Bowl against the New York Giants on Feb. 3.
Leading by nine, New England started at its own 13 with 9:13 left in the game. This time, Brady faced four third-down plays and converted every one. He simply had to kneel down on the last two plays of the game, the Chargers helpless to do anything after using all their timeouts.
The three-time champion Patriots, who return to practice Thursday after three days off, are now 4-1 in five of the last seven AFC championship games.
``You always want to end the game with the ball,'' center Dan Koppen said. ``To put together a drive like that in the biggest game of the year, I couldn't have pictured it any differently.''
Maybe he blocked out the picture of last year's AFC title game. The motivation to avoid a repeat of one of the most painful days in the Patriots' decade of dominance was powerful.
``All we kept stressing to one another is: not this year,'' cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. ``Not this year.''
Even a single loss? Not this year, the Patriots hope.
One win shy of the first 19-0 season in NFL history, and possible acclaim as the best team ever, New England is determined. The Miami Dolphins are the only team to finish a season unbeaten when they went 17-0 in 1972 and won the Super Bowl.
So close to that goal, the Patriots have built a roadblock at their goal line - no touchdowns and just six field goals allowed in their last six quarters.
They were tied with Jacksonville 14-14 at halftime of the divisional playoff game and won 31-20. They led San Diego 14-9 at intermission and won by nine, finishing it off with a 15-play drive that only ended when the game did.
``When you have to make one or two first downs in order to move on to the next game we've all been trying to get too, it's an exciting time,'' tight end Benjamin Watson said after Kraft walked out of the Patriots locker room with the AFC championship trophy Sunday. ``It was exciting for us.''
New England did allow Eli Manning to throw four touchdown passes when it eked out a 38-35 win over the Giants in the regular-season finale, which has sparked New York from wild-card team to Super Bowl underdog.
But the Patriots are widely expected to win the rematch.
They have the record-breaking offensive talent of Brady and Randy Moss and the running of Laurence Maroney, coming off his fourth 100-plus yard rushing performance in five games.
They have a defense that has risen up at the right time, allowing just two touchdowns in its two playoff games.
And they have the awful memories.
``It was so disappointing last season,'' Brady said after beating San Diego. ``I remember leaving the bus at Indianapolis and just reflecting on how close we were and how disappointing it was, knowing that there was another team going instead of us.
``And now we can look at where we are now and be proud of what we've accomplished thus far, but realize there's a greater challenge ahead.''
The challenge to have the lead and the ball in their hands on the final play.
And the pride of once again holding in those same hands the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
 

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