SAN DIEGO — With an eight-point lead and momentum on their side early in the fourth quarter, the San Diego Chargers seemed to have New England quarterback Tom Brady in check.
For more than three quarters, Brady struggled to find any rhythm against the Chargers' mixture of defensive schemes that forced him into several bad throws and poor reads.
"We were prepared for anything that they had," San Diego linebacker Randall Godfrey said.
"We knew going into the game that Brady wouldn't really know what we were doing. We did a nice job of disguising and were making plays."
The Chargers' defense, which forced New England to punt seven times, kept Brady and the Patriots' pass protectors guessing for much of the game by constantly moving around linebackers and defensive backs before the snap.
On some plays, San Diego blitzed to put pressure on Brady. When the Chargers dropped into coverage, the Patriots found it difficult to find openings.
This strategy confused Brady at times and led to a first-half interception by linebacker Donnie Edwards and a near interception by safety Clinton Hart, who dropped the ball after it was deflected by safety Marlon McCree.
But Brady, who had thrown only five interceptions in the playoffs since his rookie season in 2001, never got frustrated. Even after a couple of uncharacteristic mistakes, he continued to be patient and took what the Chargers gave him after LaDainian Tomlinson's second touchdown gave San Diego a 21-13 lead with 8 minutes 35 seconds to play.
"We had to stick with it," Brady said about the Patriots' spread formation he ran from the shotgun. "It was working at least better than the other stuff."
Brady was rewarded for his resiliency on New England's final two possessions. Operating out of a no-huddle attack, which had some success in the first half, the Patriots did not try to score a touchdown in one play.
Instead, New England left it up to Brady to make plays, and he got things going with a 17-yard pass over the middle to Jabar Gaffney. But then the Chargers defense stiffened.
After a short pass to running back Kevin Faulk, an incompletion and a sack by linebacker Shawne Merriman, New England was stuck with fourth down and five from the Chargers 41.
That's when San Diego forced Brady into his biggest miscue. McCree intercepted a pass intended for Troy Brown, but he fumbled on the return when Brown stripped the ball out of his hands.
"I was trying to make a play and anytime I get the ball, I am going to try and score," said McCree, who had a strong game until his fumble. "I didn't see the receiver behind me and he stripped it. The receiver made a great play. I have no regrets for trying to make a play, and that is what I was trying to do."
New England receiver Reche Caldwell, a former Charger, recovered the fumble to give the Patriots new life, and Brady made sure they made the most of it.
He completed a clutch third-down pass to Gaffney to keep the drive going and finished it with a four-yard touchdown pass to Caldwell with 4:41 remaining.
The Patriots tied the score, 21-21, when Faulk ran in the two-point conversion.
"The way we played, not doing the things we're supposed to do, like protect the ball and get interceptions when we should have, hurt us," Godfrey said. "There's really no excuse. You can't play like that in the playoffs against a team like New England."
After San Diego failed to get a first down and punted, Brady and the Patriots got the ball back one final time with 3:30 remaining. This time, Brady did not need any breaks from the Chargers.
To start the drive, he completed a 19-yard pass to tight end Daniel Graham by splitting San Diego's zone defense, then he broke San Diego's heart with a 49-yard completion to Caldwell, who found room down the right sideline after beating cornerback Quentin Jammer at the line of scrimmage.
Four plays later, Stephen Gostkowski kicked a game-winning 31-yard field goal.