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Just a flash in the pan

Times Staff Writer

So much for the NFL’s new world order.

Never mind that the San Diego Chargers had the AFC’s best record and nine Pro Bowl players. Forget that they hadn’t lost at home all season, or that they have the league’s most valuable player in LaDainian Tomlinson, or that they were riding a 10-game winning streak.

The New England Patriots, methodical and merciless, did Sunday what they always seem to do in the playoffs: They put the ball in Tom Brady’s hands and strolled away with a 24-21 victory, leaving a packed house at Qualcomm Stadium slack-jawed and stunned. Stephen Gostkowski’s 31-yard field goal with 1 minute 10 seconds to play provided the winning points.

For the Patriots, it’s a step closer to their fourth Super Bowl in six seasons.

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For the Chargers, who were 14-2 in the regular season, the party ended in the middle of the first dance.

“It’s a shock, because we had every opportunity to win that game,” linebacker Shawne Merriman said. “It wasn’t like we went out there and flat-out got beat. We had every opportunity to win, and we didn’t come through like we should have. That’s what great teams do, come through and win games.”

It was the sixth consecutive playoff defeat for Coach Marty Schottenheimer -- four with Kansas City and the last two with the Chargers -- and it could cost him his job. His future with the Chargers could be known today.

But several Chargers said a coaching change would be a mistake.

“As players, we failed this organization,” defensive tackle Luis Castillo said, his voice quavering. “This had nothing to do with ownership, nothing to do with coaches. They put us in position to win this game. As players, we made mistakes that you cannot make in a game like this.”

There was plenty of blame to go around. The Chargers dropped passes and would-be interceptions, wasted timeouts, had four giveaways -- after averaging less than one per game in the regular season -- and simply gagged away an eight-point lead in the final five minutes.

The most memorable error, the one that set up the score-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter, at first looked like a big play for the Chargers. New England went for it on fourth and five at the San Diego 41, and appeared to pay the price when safety Marlon McCree intercepted a pass by Brady.

But instead of falling to the turf, or simply knocking down the pass, McCree tried to return it. He was promptly stripped of the ball by receiver Troy Brown and the Patriots recovered.

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After scoring a touchdown and two-point conversion on that possession, the Patriots took the lead with Gostkowski’s field goal on their next one. San Diego, with no timeouts left, tried to respond with a field goal of its own, but Nate Kaeding’s 54-yard attempt fell well short with three seconds left.

For some of the Chargers, the bitter disappointment of that became tinged with anger after a few Patriots turned toward the San Diego sideline and taunted them with celebrations. Linebacker Rosevelt Colvin clutched his throat as if choking himself. Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork did a mocking version of Merriman’s “Lights Out” dance, the one in which the Chargers star reaches up and toggles the light-switch tattoo on his forearm.

Wilfork’s sideshow so incensed the normally mild-mannered Tomlinson that San Diego teammates had to hold him back -- even though Wilfork outweighs him by more than 100 pounds.

“To do the dance that Shawne Merriman is known for, that’s disrespectful,” Tomlinson said. “And I can’t sit there and watch that. So yeah, I was very upset. They showed no class at all. Absolutely no class. Maybe it comes from their head coach.”

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That coach, Bill Belichick, who a week earlier mauled a photographer in an effort to get to New York Jets Coach Eric Mangini for a hug, spent the final moments of this game embracing his children. Playoff victories like these have grown routine, especially with a quarterback who’s 12-1 in the postseason. Brady’s performance Sunday was far from perfect -- his three interceptions were a career high for the playoffs -- but he made the throws he had to make.

As a result, the Patriots are headed to Indianapolis to face a team they knocked out of the playoffs in 2003 and ’04. The Colts notched regular-season victories over New England the last two years.

By the time they’d reached the locker room Sunday, the Patriots had already moved on. “We have a crucial game coming up,” linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. “We’re not looking past it, and we’re not looking back now.”

The Chargers, meanwhile, are left to confront a crueler fate: Lights out.

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sam.farmer@latimes.com


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