FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Throughout the NFL season, quarterback Tom Brady carried his New England teammates when they needed him most.
Sunday, it was the rest of the Patriots who did the lifting.
With a trip to Super Bowl XLII at stake and NFL history hanging in the balance, the Patriots relied on their stout defense and clock-burning running game to beat San Diego, 21-12, turning back an inspired effort by the banged-up Chargers.
It was an oh-so-close call for the undefeated Patriots, who overcame three interceptions by Brady and on three occasions stopped the Chargers inside the New England 10-yard line.
Said linebacker Mike Vrabel: "It was probably our time to win a game."
And now the Patriots have a chance to win their fourth Super Bowl since 2001, plus secure a hallowed place in league history. They're 18-0 and with one more victory will join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only teams to win every game, from opener through grand finale.
In two weeks, the Patriots will face the NFC champion New York Giants in Glendale, Ariz., with the Lombardi Trophy, the gaudy diamond rings and all the glory going to the champion.
The Patriots didn't know that feeling last year, when Indianapolis overcame an 18-point deficit to beat them in the conference championship game at the RCA Dome. That memory is fresh in the minds of many New England players.
"I remember leaving the bus at Indianapolis and just reflecting on how close we were, and how disappointing it was knowing that there was another team that was going instead of us," Brady said. "And now we can look at where we are now and be proud of what we've accomplished thus far, but realize there's a greater challenge ahead."
For the Patriots who already have some rings on their fingers, Sunday's game had a nostalgic feel. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi, for instance, referred to the grind-it-out victory as simply "Patriot football," something different from the blowouts that came earlier this season.
"I mean, 52-7, I was never used to," Bruschi said. "It was something that even in all of our championship years never happened. That never happened on a consistent basis. We would have a blowout or two here or there, but never three, four, five in a row. These are the games we're used to."
The Patriots clinched the victory with their ground game, using handoffs to Laurence Maroney to run the final nine minutes off the clock and deny San Diego the chance to whittle away at the nine-point deficit.
San Diego put up a good fight, even with three hobbled Pro Bowl players on offense. Quarterback Philip Rivers favored his bum knee; tight end Antonio Gates walked gingerly on his injured toe; and running back LaDainian Tomlinson, nursing a sprained knee, spent nearly the entire game on the sideline, bundled against the frigid afternoon.
"Our guys competed," Coach Norv Turner said. "We had some unbelievable efforts, some guys made remarkable commitments in terms of laying it on the line when they probably shouldn't have been out there on the field. I can't say enough about guys who care that much."
Chargers center Nick Hardwick seemed to struggle to keep his emotions in check when asked about the performance of Rivers, who limped away from pressure enough to complete 19 of 37 passes for 211 yards, with two interceptions.
"Gutsy, man," Hardwick said of Rivers, who confided he "probably" will undergo knee surgery this off-season. "Toughest guy on the whole field today, both sides. There's no way he should have been playing. I wouldn't have played if I was him, but he came out there and . . . he's a tough sucker.
"Nobody was going to keep him off the field, doctors, trainers. He willed himself to play this game."
Things might have turned out much differently had the Chargers been able to punctuate their drives with touchdowns, instead of field goals. But New England's defense made the plays it needed to make, and the Patriots collected their 11th consecutive home playoff victory. The last time they lost a postseason game in Foxborough was to the 1978 Houston Oilers, before many of their current players were born.
There's plenty of bad blood between these teams, dating to the Patriots' divisional victory at San Diego last season and the celebratory dances that followed. A bit of that nastiness carried over to Sunday's game.
Case in point: Cameras caught New England defensive end Richard Seymour discreetly dipping his shoulder into Rivers, apparently after the whistle, and knocking the startled quarterback on his keister.
"There was a field goal where he was stomping feet," Hardwick said. "Who stomps feet? And the officials weren't doing anything about it. He plays like a punk."
San Diego is left to stew in those bitter feelings, just like last year.
The Patriots are moving on, perfection on the horizon, their ultimate goal just four quarters away.
NEW ENGLAND 21, SAN DIEGO 12
Patriots ace No. 18
It isn't pretty, but running game and defense carry load on an off day for Brady as unbeaten New England advances to Super Bowl XLII and a chance for a 19-0 season.
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