FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Even on a bad day, Tom Brady always gets the prize.
Whether it's wooing supermodels or getting to the Super Bowl, the NFL's pretty boy wonder never seems to settle for second best.
The New England Patriots quarterback got the imperfections out of his system early in yesterday's AFC championship and then found a way to keep this perfect season alive.
A 21-12 win over the stubborn San Diego Chargers yesterday set up Brady and the rest of the Patriots for a trip to Super Bowl XLII in suburban Phoenix.
And after 13 days of dealing with the superlatives to describe their season of unprecedented success, the Patriots will vie for their fourth Super Bowl this decade and a place alongside the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only undefeated team in the NFL's modern era.
"I think there will be a time and a place to sit back and reflect on it," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, when asked about the accomplishment of an 18-0 (and counting) season. "Right now I'm just proud of our team for winning this game and having a chance to go play for the NFL title."
They will do it as heavy 131/2-point favourites over the NFC champion New York Giants despite what was an atypical effort for the Patriots in this dominating campaign.
For starters Brady, who had just two incompletions in last week's win over Jacksonville, was picked off three times by the vexing Chargers defence.
Instead of Randy Moss, who now has all of two catches in two post-season games, it was running back Laurence Maroney who was the go-to guy.
The hard-nosed Maroney followed his pounding lead blockers to roll up 122 yards, 100 of those in the second half.
Instead of a dominant defence, it was a bend-don't-break version which held the Chargers and their gimpy but game offence to four field goals despite some impressive drives led by quarterback Philip Rivers.
And instead of a blowout, it was a hard-fought battle for the third consecutive game.
"We couldn't get drives going and it felt like everything was a struggle," said Brady, who completed his final eight passes and had a pair of touchdown tosses -- a six-yarder to Wes Welker and 12 yards to Jabar Gaffney. "We'll have to regroup a little and try to elevate our game for one last performance."
After his final pick late in the third quarter, Brady fumed on the sideline. It was a particularly nasty blunder too, considering it came with the Patriots clinging to a 14-12 lead but facing third and goal from the Chargers two.
The next time he got the ball, Brady marched his team 67 yards for a touchdown to swell the lead to nine points.
Then came the clincher. When the defence stuck the Chargers again, Brady and the offence went to work with 9:13 remaining running out the clock.
"He's considered by so many to be the best player in pro football this year and he had an off day and still found a way to help this team win," Patriots fullback Heath Evans said.
The first three Pats drives went punt, punt, pick. And the Chargers. who had a quarterback with two bum knees and a running back -- NFL rushing leader LaDainian Tomlinson -- who had two carries before retiring opened the scoring three minutes in with a 26-yard Nate Kaeding field goal.
With Brady's struggles, the rest of the game was a battle ultimately won by the guys in the trenches rather than the guy with the good looks.
"These are the games we are used to," Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "This is what we consider Patriot football."