FOXBOROUGH - They are Camelot's football team, extending perfection (17-0) into the new year, one victory shy of playing in their fourth Super Bowl in seven seasons.
The New England Patriots advanced to the AFC Championship game with a 31-20 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium last night. One week from today Bill Belichick's History Boys will play the San Diego Chargers or Indianapolis Colts in Foxborough for the right to advance to Super Bowl XLII in Arizona Feb. 3.
"We played well enough to win," said Belichick. "It gets tougher every step of the way in the playoffs. It's good to be playing next week."
More than championship-driven, these Patriots are playing for immortality - a chance to someday be known as the Gridiron's Greatest Generation. The 2007 Patriots set regular-season records for points, touchdowns, and victories. Running the table to 19-0 would give them the best record in the history of professional football. The 1972 Dolphins (17-0) are the only undefeated team in NFL annals.
New England's perfect team has a perfect quarterback and Tom Brady threw a near-perfect game. Improving his playoff record to 13-2, Brady completed 26 of 28 passes (the two misses were on target), throwing three touchdown passes.
"When they're open like that, it's my job to hit them," said Brady. "That makes it fun to play."
Already league Most Valuable Player, Male Athlete of the Year (AP), Sportsman of the Year (Sporting News), boyfriend of a supermodel (Gisele Bundchen), Brady is rumored to be up for a Golden Globe tonight.
The Patriots' QB surgically dissected and demoralized the worthy visitors - beating them once with the old Statue of Liberty Play ("Yeah, I'm looking for the Academy Award on that play," joked Brady). Under Brady's direction, New England did not punt until the final 30 seconds.
"Tom's been great in the big games," said the ever-understated Belichick. "He's a tremendous player and he's had a great year for us."
Yes. The best year in the history of the quarterback position.
"We have the opportunity to play another week," said Brady. "I'm glad we're playing at home. I think we've learned a lot of valuable lessons throughout the season. After 17 games, it all comes down to this and we were here last year. I hope we play better."
The Patriots lost the AFC Championship game, 38-34, at Indianapolis last Jan. 21.
For more than three quarters there was some doubt if the Patriots were going to advance to another AFC title game. The muscular Jags battled to a halftime tie (14-14), and didn't fade until late in the night. Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard completed 22 of 33 passes and it was still a one-possession game with less than 10 minutes to play. It wasn't officially over until Rodney Harrison intercepted a Garrard pass with just over four minutes left.
It was a perfect night for football, an unseasonably warm 42 degrees at kickoff. The Red Sox won't have a night as good in April.
Looking simultaneously cool and warm - Johnny Cash-like - Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio showed up on the sideline wearing a black leather jacket over a black sweater and black trousers. On the other side, Belichick was in full hoodie mode, lid down.
Minutes after the start, the Jaguars went for a first down on fourth and 1 from the Patriots' 43 and Garrard completed a 34-yard pass to Marcedes Lewis to the 9. On third and goal from the 8, Garrard was in the grasp of Mike Vrabel, inches from hitting the turf, when he lofted a pass to a wide-open Matt Jones in the end zone. Belichick thought about challenging the play but declined the option. Jacksonville led, 7-0, and there was silence in Foxborough.
No problem. Brady (he completed his first 16 pass attempts and didn't throw an incomplete pass until the third quarter) answered with a 74-yard touchdown drive, tying the game with a 3-yard pass to Benjamin Watson.
On Jacksonville's second possession, Ty Warren forced a Garrard fumble. Vrabel recovered the loose ball and was playing tight end when Laurence Maroney (122 yards) ran 1 yard into the end zone on the first play of the second quarter to make it 14-7.
What followed was downright unbelievable. After a botched kickoff reception, the Jaguars marched 95 yards in 11 plays, capping the monster drive with a feathery 6-yard pass from Garrard to Ernest Wilford. It is the second-longest touchdown drive allowed by the Patriots this season (the Colts went for 98 yards Nov. 4).
After halftime, Brady orchestrated an 82-yard TD drive, putting the Patriots ahead for keeps with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Wes Welker (nine catches).
Bring on the Colts. Or Bolts. It makes no difference to Messrs. Belichick and Brady.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.