By Ryan Hannable
BOSTON (WEEI.com) -- On Jan. 14, 2007, 12 years ago, the New England Patriots played one of the most thrilling playoff games in their long-lasting run of dominance, a game that even stands up with some of the Super Bowls.
Despite not winning any of the key team statistical categories and turning the ball over three times, the Patriots were able to come away with a 24-21 win on the road in San Diego against the Chargers.
It was a game where the Patriots trailed 14-3 late in the first half and then 21-13 in the fourth quarter, but were somehow able to leave town with a win that advanced them to the AFC championship against the Indianapolis Colts.
How did it all happen? Allow the people involved to explain, 12 years later.
New England finished the year 12-4 to earn the No. 4 seed in the AFC. After beating the New York Jets, 37-16, on wild-card weekend, they traveled across the country to take on the Chargers on a Sunday afternoon in San Diego. The Chargers entered the game as the No. 1 seed in the AFC thanks to their 14-2 regular-season record. They also had 11 Pro Bowl players, way more than any other team.
Shawne Merriman, Chargers linebacker: “My mentality always changed when playing Tom Brady and also Bill Belichick. You want to treat every game like it is the next, but in that case it’s really not. You’re going against probably the greatest quarterback of all-time and probably the greatest coach of all-time, or one of. The mentality switches because you know you have to be on your A-game. You know you can’t make mistakes and do anything that is going to put them in a better situation to win.”
Nick Hardwick, Chargers center: “We were 14-2, it was Philip (Rivers’) first playoff game coming off of a bye and we were really confident. We were a solid, solid football team, and I was young at the time. That was my third year in the league, so it kind of seemed like you show up and you’re on a magic carpet ride and things happen for you.”
Lonie Paxton, Patriots long snapper: “I remember obviously they were a good team and needing to travel all the way west. It is always difficult. We had a lot of West Coast guys on the team, so we had multiple distractions there with family and just the caliber of game, scenario of going in there and playing a tough team. The field conditions were always kind of iffy. It was definitely an exciting and a big game.”
John Tomase, Boston Herald Patriots reporter: “We landed in San Diego and I hadn't even packed a jacket, because everyone told me it was a year-round 75 degree paradise. Then the first headline I see on the local news is 'FROST' in capital letters. I shivered my ass off in the outdoor press box all game, with temperatures in the mid-30s by the end. I also remember feeling like the worst person in the world because I had skipped my close friend Alex Speier's wedding in Memphis to cover the game.”
Mike Dussault (@PatsPropaganda), Patriots fan: “Having a single ticket, I was worried that I would be alone and smack dab in the middle of Chargers fan central, but somehow I was surrounded by Patriots fans. Many had flown out for the game. I was ecstatic to have people to high-five, but there really wasn't that much to high-five about for most of the game.”
The first quarter was fairly uneventful with the only scoring being a 50-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski to give the Patriots an early 3-0 lead.
Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots kicker: “I think in any game, it is nice to get off to a good start. To make a kick like that in the beginning of any game is going to give you confidence going forward.”
Hardwick: “What I remember very clearly in that game was I believe we started off with one of our most basic run packages and we didn’t out-formation them, and we didn’t out-shift, or out-motion them. We didn’t do anything wild. It was like, ‘Line up, old-school, inside zone run.’ It ended up popping for 11 yards and I thought, ‘Hell, this is going to be a really great game for us. We’re running the ball down their throats pretty well.’ I thought we had pretty good control in the first half of that game.”
The Chargers began to take control of the game in the second quarter. LaDainian Tomlinson had a touchdown run with just over seven minutes left in the first half to take a 7-3 lead, and then just prior to the two-minute warning, the Chargers scored again. It was now 14-3 with just over two minutes left in the first half and the Patriots had the ball. Tom Brady led the Patriots down the field and ended up finding Jabar Gaffney in the end zone to cut the deficit to 14-10 at the half.
Tomase: “The turning point was that final drive of the first half. Brady did his thing in the two-minute offense, and Jabar Gaffney was everywhere. Whenever anyone asks about receivers getting on the same page with Brady right away, Gaffney's always the first guy I think of. He signed in October because the Pats had no receivers, and he was Brady's No. 1 target by the playoffs. I know his life has taken a number of sad turns since he left football, but at the time I admired his ability to rise above the Reche Caldwells and Doug Gabriels Brady had been saddled with.”
Like the first quarter, the third quarter was also uneventful with the only scoring being a 34-yard Gostkowski field goal with 2:11 left.
Lorenzo Neal, Chargers fullback: “You saw the game: LaDainian Tomlinson with 60-something yards in the first half. I think he only carried the ball four or five times in the second half. We went away from what got us there.”
Hardwick: “In the second half, for whatever reason, we just decided to stop running the football consistently. I remember a real number of limited rushes in the second half. It didn’t seem like it stopped working, it just seemed like we stopped calling the runs for whatever reason.”
After alternating drives, the Chargers got momentum back on their side with a Tomlinson touchdown run with 8:40 remaining in the game. This gave the Chargers a 21-13 advantage, and a trip to the AFC title game was in their reach.
On the following Patriots drive, they faced fourth-and-5 from the Chargers’ 41-yard line. A short pass was intercepted by Marlon McCree at the 31-yard line and the Chargers cornerback ran the ball 3 yards before it was stripped away by Troy Brown and Reche Caldwell recovered. San Diego challenged the call, but it was upheld and the Patriots kept possession. It was now first-and-10 on the Chargers’ 32-yard line with 6:16 to play.
Troy Brown, Patriots wide receiver: “It was fourth down already. You’re like, ‘Holy s--t, we have to get this or else these guys are going to milk the clock and the game is over.’ The whole swing of emotions at the particular point, watching the ball get intercepted was probably the best thing that could have happened to us at that point in time.
“I didn’t even really watch that play afterwards because the mindset with Bill (Belichick) is we were on to the next game. We were on to Indy at that point. I don’t even recall watching it on tape or anything to really get a sense of what really happened. I spent all these years thinking it was my fault that he threw the interception in the first place because I didn’t feel like I ran a good enough route at that particular point. I wasn’t exactly sure if he was throwing that ball to me, or if he was throwing it to Reche. I knew my job was to get in if they were playing a certain coverage, so if the guy were to jump me then Reche was to come open. I felt like the guy jumped me, but when the ball came out of his hand it didn’t seem like it was that far away from me.
“I watched it the other day over at Kraft studios and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, he was throwing it to Reche.’ My mentality was, Bill always talked about when defensive guys pick up fumbles or interceptions they are not used to running with the football. So, if you have a chance to get it back, go for it. There was a particular spot there where I got him back inside a little bit and he didn’t go down, so I had my opportunity to get my hands in there. I saw one of their big defensive lineman come in and they like to peal guys off the pile and I knew he was coming for me, so I was like, ‘I have to take my shot right here to pull this ball out’ and I got it out with the last dug and then I saw Reche come in with his big ‘ole eyes. At that point I was like, ‘Yup, we’re in business.’”
Neal: “It was over. We saw (McCree) intercept it and everyone was like, ‘Get down!’ If Marlon McCree falls down, we have the ball and we are winning. Instead, he took off running and everyone was like, ‘Get down, we have No. 21 on our team. LaDainian Tomlinson. What are you trying to do?’
“That is pride. Marty Schottenheimer, the coach always said, ‘When you end it, get on the ground. Let guys who are paid to run the ball run the ball.’ For him to try and do that it was a very, very selfish act and guys on that team understood that. We asked him why didn’t he just fall? He said if he had to do it over again he would have done that. That next year he was cut. He wasn’t on the team the following year because of a selfish act.”
Hardwick: “I remember him catching the ball and virtually everyone being like, ‘Go down,’ because this thing is a wrap, but I don’t think it was quite that obvious that the game was going to be over if he just went down. If I remember back, there was a little bit more time on the clock. We still had a pretty good amount of work to do to close that thing out. I don’t think it was a foregone conclusion that if Marlon McCree would have simply taken a knee on that interception that the game was going to be over.”
Kevin Faulk, Patriots running back: “The craziest thing about that situation was I had a similar situation a few years later against the Ravens. When Tom threw an interception, I think it was Ed Reed who caught the ball, and that play in that game came in my mind real quick. I automatically went for the ball when I went for the tackle. That play stuck in my mind for a while.”
Tomase: “The Troy Brown play is a blur. I was working on my early-edition game story for the Herald, which I needed to file the second the game ended. With the Chargers up virtually wire to wire, I was deep into my ‘Patriots lose’ story. But I had a separate tab open with a 'Patriots win' story, because who counts out Tom Brady? After Brown stripped McCree, I closed the 'lose' story and started writing the win one like crazy.”
Dussault: “I definitely had the ‘this game is over’ moment after the interception that lasted about two seconds, but it was hard to get a clear view of it being so close behind the Patriots' bench. The roar of the crowd as it was intercepted was enough to put a pit in my stomach. It was hard to see who recovered after the Brown strip and the ensuing battle for the ball. You could feel the collective energy deflate around the Pats fans.”
Brady took advantage by connecting with Reche Caldwell for a 4-yard touchdown with 4:41 to go, but the Patriots still needed to convert the two-point conversion. Josh McDaniels dialed up a Patriots staple near the goal-line — a direct snap to Kevin Faulk, who found his way into the end zone to tie the game at 21.
Faulk: “Every time you do them, it is like, ‘They are going to catch on to it.’ We had been doing it for a while and we used a different formation to try and hide it a little bit, motioned in the backfield differently. We had been doing it for a while, so every time it was like are they going to catch on that we’re running this play again? And it never really happened.”
Dan Koppen, Patriots center: “I think that was one of the two-point plays we ran in Super Bowl XXXVIII, and then we worked on it all that year, once a week during the regular season and then during the playoffs, but never ran it until the Super Bowl. Then we put it away for a little bit, but ran it in practice. It was one of those things were the situation came up and we hadn’t run it in game action for three years, or whatever it was.”
The Patriots defense then forced a three-and-out, but following a massive punt by Chargers punter Mike Scifres, the Patriots started on their own 15-yard line with 3:30 remaining in the game. Brady led the Patriots down the field to set up a 31-yard Gostkowski field goal attempt, which he nailed to give the Patriots a 24-21 lead with 1:14 to go.
Gostkowski: “That was a big moment early in my career. Any time you have a positive impact on the game and you win, it’s very exciting. At my position, it is one or the other, so it’s pure joy or pure disgust. It was cool.”
Faulk: “It’s kind of hard to erase a guy out of your mind that won you two Super Bowls (Adam Vinatieri). At that point in time it was like, ‘You can do it, you can do it.’”
Paxton: “We practiced it so much and it is a lot of repetition. I do remember thinking, ‘Wow, I wasn’t really expecting to be in this opportunity when the interception was made.’ Then all of a sudden, we got the ball back and now we had a chance. Vividly in my head was just the joy and elation we had after we made the field goal.”
San Diego had one final chance to tie the game. Rivers got the Chargers into field goal range for a 54-yard attempt, but Pro Bowl kicker Nate Kaeding missed the kick. The Patriots got an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty after the play, but they would take it because following a Brady kneeldown, they had won the game, 24-21.
It was a crazy scene on the field afterwards with Patriots players celebrating in all kinds of ways. Some, like Ellis Hobbs and Vince Wilfork, did a version of Shawne Merriman’s “Lights Out,” dance, which upset a number of Chargers.
Merriman: “Not really disrespected by it. At the end of the day, that was a different team then than the team that they have now. But, when you are put in a situation where the quarterback is still there and the head coach is still there, it might be a different team, but those feelings are still there. Maybe 10 years from now when Tom Brady is gone and Bill Belichick is gone and they have a whole new regime I might feel a little bit different about the team and organization, but right now, you don’t forget it.
“When it happened, I didn’t see what was taking place because we had just lost. I literally was about 30 or 40 yards away kneeling down with my head looking at the grass. By the time I looked up I saw LT in the middle of the crowd and Philip, and that was when I took off running there. By the time I got there, it was already broken up. I didn’t see everything that happened until a few days later when the videos started to come out of the dancing and the articles.”
Hardwick: “I remember sitting in the locker room. You kind of sulk a little bit after those losses and I was thinking, ‘Where is everybody? What happened out there?’ Guys came in still riled up, of course, and that was all part of the fallout of losing the game. Hell, I don’t blame them for mocking anybody afterwards. It is a huge emotional game and you expect that kind of act to happen.”
Brown: “It was pretty testy. They weren’t happy at all with the way we celebrated after that football game. I just looked at the situation like these guys were calling us classless and the coach classless, Bill, and I remember being out there seeing Philip Rivers jawing with Ellis Hobbs and he called him the sorriest corner in the league.
“I am looking at situation like how are you calling us classless when you’re making these kind of comments about former players and how can we be classless by doing a celebration that you invented to celebrate something good against another team? We just did something against you, and celebrated, and just happened to use something you created. I didn’t see anything classless about it at all.”
Paxton: “That is why LT shed a couple of tears after the game. I grew up in Southern California, so for me it is nice to come back home and get a victory against any of those California teams.”
Faulk: “We could have done it a little differently. I don’t know what was going on until later. I might have done it a little differently, but as those guys said, that is the emotions they felt.”
Koppen: “I think we had little chip on our shoulder going into it, and I think Vince was one of the guys doing the ‘Lights Out’ dance. I think it was guys letting out emotion. Whether it was disrespectful or not, I don’t think it was disrespectful. It was one of those things where it was a competitive game and when it’s over and emotions show.”
The scene then shifted to the locker rooms as the Patriots celebrated their huge win to move on while the Chargers saw their season end in abrupt fashion. With such a talented team, they had a legitimate chance to win the Super Bowl that year.
Paxton: “The Chargers’ [visiting] locker room, that was just a s--thole. Real thin walls, so we we’re celebrating and I know the team next to us could hear it. Walking past them on the way to the buses was a great feeling. It is a small locker room that you have to gather in — banging into the lockers, yelling and screaming, it was a good feeling.
“I think I had between 20 and 30 family members and friends in the stadium. I think between Steve Neal and I, we had about 100 burritos waiting for us afterwards.”
Neal: “It was a bad dream. You walk into the locker room and you’re like, ‘It’s over.’ 14-2, unbelievable year and this thing ended like that. It was our arrogance and our cockiness that lost that ballgame. If those two teams would have played nine out of 10 times, we would have beat them and that was the one time we went out there and were too arrogant, too cocky and ended up turning the game into a dog fight that shouldn’t have been.”
Tomase: “I was lined up under the stadium as the game ended, so I didn't see any dances. I did hear players screaming, 'LIGHTS OUT!' as they passed the Chargers locker room, which I think actually pissed them off more than the dancing. Rosevelt Colvin stands out as one of the loudest all these years later. My other memory of the postgame? Seeing this like 6-foot-tall impossibly beautiful woman standing outside the Pats locker room in jeans and finding out later it was Gisele [Bundchen]. I think that's actually the night she and Brady met.”
Dussault: “After we finally left the stadium, I remember waiting for my friend at his car and one Chargers fan telling me the Patriots would lose the following week. I was trying not to get beat up by anyone so I just nodded and waved bye. My buddy blasting ‘Dirty Water’ from his car radio as soon as we opened the doors felt like a little much.
“But yeah, it was a great day to be a Patriots fan. All in all, it was one of the best fan experiences of my life.”