AFC Championship Game: Patriots Game Balls

RealFootball365.comSenior Writer IJanuary 21, 2008

Whether you love 'em or hate 'em, today you have to congratulate 'em: Welcome to history, 18-0 New England Patriots; one can only imagine the inspirational, motivational, high-energy words spoken after the game by the charismatic coach in the locker room:

"Good game, men. Well-played. That was a tough team, tough in all areas of the game, but you guys did enough to win. Now, we've got to focus on the next game. That's a good team, they can hurt us in many ways. We've just got to focus..."

Well, all right, maybe we don't need to visualize Bill Belichick's fourth such talk in the hallowed halls of the Patriots' home locker room. Imagine instead RealFootball365 got in on ol' stone face handing out some individual kudos.

Game balls for those incredible Patriots in championship week go to ...

Offense. Again did the unsung step up for New England. Naturally, when you have one of the most important games in the history of the franchise, you'll be entrusting several of your key plays to ... Kevin Faulk?

Indeed, one of the handful of guys left from the original champion Patriots team of 2001-2002, not only outperformed his counterparts, he totaled more yards receiving than guys named Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte' Stallworth and Antonio Gates. (Seriously, the guy who had Faulk as the game's leading receiver and Moss' first play from scrimmage a 14-yard run on a reverse is my best friend come this year's trip to Las Vegas.)

Did anyone even notice? Faulk turned in more invisible plays that appear like boring lines in the play-by-play report but that revitalized a Patriot drive time and again. During the second-quarter drive for the team's first TD, Faulk contributed three catches including two first-down conversions and a near-end zone trip. On the last play before the two-minute warning, in a play that'll never make the highlight reel, Faulk went well wide left, literally bouncing off a couple of defensive linemen in a Madden-like inelastic collision and gained 8 yards from what looked like a 1-yard loss.

In the end, with about 7:15 and 5:15 left in the game, Brady twice found Faulk short to convert on third and keep the game ball out of San Diego's hands and leave it with the veteran.

In fact, after the first quarter, it looked like Belichick & Co. were force-feeding the Chargers a steady three-course meal of Faulk, Laurence Maroney and Wes Welker. Game balls to each of this killer Scylla.

Special Teams. Aside from Chris Hanson, who gets a game ball for actually earning his pay this week (and his second trip to the Super Bowl) with four punts including the swell 48-yarder he boomed in the first, we'll mention another unsung hero lost in the fervor of records falling this year.

Remember way back in the offseason (seems like forever and yet yesterday), when the Patriots were publicized for their four WR acquisitions? There was Moss, Welker, Stallworth and ... Kelley Washington. After a tough elimination process in camp, Washington hung on, staying on the Patriot roster as a special teamer while dealing with a hamstring problem.

Suddenly, though, there he was about midway through the second quarter hustling downfield on another flying Hanson punt, ultimately leaping like Hakeem Olajuwon to reject the pigskin out of the end zone and give the Chargers starting position at the 4-yard line. Ah, the national limelight ...

And a game ball.

Defense. Weakness? As of late, we've all heard that the chink in the Pats' armor may be the aged linebacker corps and its ineffectiveness in the red zone. In the pre-game show, however, all was naturally light and fluffy over at CBS, as the network celebrated the Patriot 'D' with a nauseatingly edited four-way lovefest with key New England defenders.

High in praise was Mike Vrabel, who stated that "no one deserves this opportunity more than Junior Seau." (I suppose we've made a collective unspoken agreement to utterly wipe memories of Super Bowl XXIX.) As for Seau, he admiringly proclaimed that the Patriots are "Tedy Bruschi's team."

The latter two oldsters had plenty to say on the field Sunday, too. Red zone, schmed zone: While the Chargers may have scored both times they visited inside the 20, the ultimate bend-but-don't-break 'D' battened down the hatches in the maroon area.

Age, schmage: Seau played a complete game, beginning with the fantastic sack in the first wherein the New England defensive line cleared out everyone, leaving Philip Rivers to stumble into the old dude's clutches. Bruschi, meanwhile, killed in the second and third quarter. In the final five minutes of the first half, Bruschi notched a deflected pass and two stuffed rushes for zero yards.

In the final box score, Seau and Bruschi accounted for 14 tackles in what could be the last game at Foxborough for either or both. The Patriots'll be playing one more Sunday, though, thanks in part to the efforts of these guys. Game ball.

Soaked in champagne for at least part of the year at