FOXBOROUGH -- Anyone else left out there who thinks the Patriots are just a cutesy aerial circus?
The fact is they've been playing trench warfare football for the past eight weeks. An additional fact is that in the last two weeks they have been a classic playoff team; i.e. one that wins with defense and smashmouth offense.
"We're prepared," explained safety Rodney Harrison. "That's what we do. We have the talent, the personnel, and the smarts to do whatever you want us to do."
Last week the Jaguars took away Randy Moss. Today a combination of Mother Nature and an excellent Chargers defense made Tom Brady look ordinary. (Well, kinda, sorta, at least until it really mattered). Yeah, well, bravo. The Patriots are still going to the Super Bowl.
They were 21-12 victors over the game Chargers because the Patriots have now established themselves as a multi-dimensional offensive team and because the defense did not permit San Diego to enter the end zone, stopping the visitors three times on first and goal inside the 10 and a fourth time on a first and 10 at the 31. You don't have to be very smart to know that four Nate Kaeding field goals aren't going to beat the New England Patriots.
"It was crucial that we had those red zone stops," said Tedy Bruschi. "When you're hugging your coach after winning the AFC Championship and the first thing he has to say is, 'Great job in the red zone,' you know it's important."
Here's something else that's important: having a coach with nerve, although in this case it may not be nerve as much as good, old-fashioned common sense.
What I'm saying is that if you're trailing the New England Patriots by 9 points with 9 minutes and 21 seconds remaining in Gillette Stadium, and it's fourth and 10 at the New England 36, then perhaps you might give serious thought to going for it. You might reconsider the idea of meekly handing the football back to Tom Brady with a 9-point lead, and never mind the fact that Brady had already thrown three interceptions (one in the end zone). Earth to Norv Turner: HE'S TOM BRADY!
Let the record show that the next time the San Diego Chargers will touch the football in a real, live game is August. Yup, the Patriots held the football right through the final two San Diego times out and the two-minute warning. They held it for eight Laurence Maroney runs behind that great offensive line and four Brady completed passes (one a clutch third-and-11 grab and run by the estimable Kevin Faulk) and even a sack. The game ended with Tom Brady taking a pair of knees. It was exactly what Norv Turner deserved.
"We had the ball against Tennessee down 14 points with 10 minutes and scored twice," Turner reasoned.
You can't say they won despite Brady, but you'd have to admit they had to work around him. It wasn't a day for throwing with a northwest wind of 17 miles per hour, and Brady's modest numbers (22 of 33 for 209 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 3 picks) reflect that. "The weather definitely had an effect," said Harrison, who pointed out that on Ellis Hobbs's interception Philip Rivers, "the ball stopped about 4 yards before it should have."
You'd say he looked mortal, all right, but he wound up completing his last seven passes, and on the last two possession, resulting in a Patriots touchdown and a clock-killing, game-ending drive he did a reasonable Tom Brady imitation. You don't have to worry about Tom Brady. Is it not a reasonable assumption that he will throw the football in his accustomed manner once he gets indoors?
But Mr. MVP was just a part of the whole today. Faulk was, as he has so often been before, Mr. Big Game, catching eight passes, good for 82 yards, and extracting every last available centimeter out of every play. Wes Welker? Well, ho and hum, you know. It was just another Wes Welker afternoon. He caught seven passes, one for a touchdown.
And, of course, there was Laurence Maroney.
We all know it wasn't all too long ago that the running game was a major concern. On those rare occasions when Brady didn't throw the ball â who can forget the 34 straight passing plays in Baltimore? â Maroney was doing his homage to Savion Glover as he approached the line. What's going to happen when, people asked, the leaves are gone and the weather turns cold and the winds kick up and it's late fall and then winter in New England? Isn't that when you need a running game?
Why, yes it is, and what Maroney has done in the past to weeks at Gillette Stadium is be the running back of any coach's dreams. He's been getting the yards he should get, and he's been getting the yards that aren't so easy to get. He picked up 122 yards today, none more valuable than the 37 he churned out as the Patriots were holding onto that precious football for the final 9:13.
Now this transformation from prancer to serious NFL runner actual began with those back-to-back 104 and 156 yard performances against the Jets and Dolphins near the end of the season. "I kept telling him, 'Be patient. Your time will come,"' said Faulk. The time is here, and Mr. Maroney is making the most of it.
"I think, watching from the sidelines, he certainly gave us a spark defensively," said Bruschi.
What we are witnessing is the gradual, unmistakable transformation from a team that almost made no sense into a team that embodies all the classical virtues of just about every great team we've ever known. "I mean, 52-7, I was never used to," Bruschi declared. "It was something that even in our championship years never happened."
24-20. 31-28. 27-24. 20-10. 38-35. 31-20. 21-12. Now we're talking.
"These are the games we are used to," Bruschi said with a smile. "This is what we consider Patriot football."
Holding Jacksonville scoreless in the second half is Patriot football. Keeping San Diego out of the end zone for 60 minutes is Patriot football.
"I think our defense always does what it needs to do to win," Bruschi said. "Holding them to field goals was what we needed to do to win."
You know what all those 52-7s, 38-14s, and 49-28s were? Fantasy football games. Elegant nonsense. Dessert.
Today's game was a main course. It was steak and potatoes football. No one plays it better.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.