There's a reason my jersey looks like this after three Super Bowls, three wild-card playoff games, and five division playoff games. The playoffs, for the truly insane sports fan, are not "fun."
The playoffs, rather, are a time for hyperventilating into paper bags, clutching at one's jersey, biting one's nails, swearing loudly, IMing "FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK" to people, and worrying. Lots of worrying.
There is also usually some good eating, which helps, but really, in my experience, having a team in the playoffs isn't fun until it's all over, and you can go back and watch on DVD or YouTube or whatever you prefer.
Anyway, the key, I think, as my heart rate heads back toward normal and I can think back to what actually happened, was the first Patriots touchdown of the game--as Brady walked off the field after bringing the team within 4 before the teams retired into the locker room, my dad said, "The legend of Brady grows."
And he deserves credit, for pulling himself together despite the fact that something was clearly off today--whether mental or physical, a number of his throws were just plain shitty. Three interceptions doth not a stellar game make. Three interceptions against the No. 1 seed usually equals a loss. But it's like my dad says, "I'd rather be lucky than good any day."
(My dad has also requested that I write here in capital letters the words "NEVER A DOUBT", as his message to the world.)
In the end, though, luck probably made at least as much of a difference as having Brady on our side; these two teams, though one was heavily favored, turned out to play each other exactly even. The Chargers offense was as challenging as advertised, but the Patriots defense, though there were stupid errors and flubbed plays that drove my blood pressure into the red zone, never, ever, ever, ever gave up. And so it was, admittedly, luck that made the difference--neither team had a true edge over the other. But the Patriots put themselves in the best position to both incur and capitalize on that luck with their sheer determination.
A great example of this was the series that actually led to San Diego's first touchdown. Beginning on the New England 48, Tomlinson dinked and dunked, 5 yards, 4 yards, and then it was 3rd and 1.
From the beginning of this drive I was tearing my hair out--it was enough to set off my pessimism that San Diego so far were winning the field position war, and the Patriots had been held to a stupid field goal. When, on 3rd and 1, what by rights was a fumble and recovery by New England right near the goal line was reversed by this game's absolutely pathetic officiating crew, I was entering full-on despair.
It is a good thing I don't play for the Patriots. Or coach for them. Or have anything to do with them so the players can hear, because I had thrown in the towel.
The defense, on the other hand, held off the Chargers for another two plays, even when they were lining up just across their own goal line. Eventually, LT would score. In the end it was true: San Diego had been winning the battle for field position, and working with their multitude of offensive weapons, were capitalizing. It was not a good moment to be a Pats fan.
But luckily the actual Patriots don't think the way I think. They keep pushing and keep fighting. Even in another standout moment, after a long completion on the Chargers' opening drive of the fourth quarter to the New England 3, Ellis Hobbs and Artrell Hawkins made a last desperate effort to stop the receiver--shades of Benjamin Watson v. Champ Bailey (or so I thought--I was still, of course, pessimistic).
And in the end, maybe it ws luck, maybe it was the determination, maybe it was a little bit of both. Maybe we've forgotten over the last couple of years that this, in the end, is Patriots football--football that leaves the pundits squabbling and puzzling. Whatever that magic mixture--dare I call it..."Mystique"?--it was surely at work on the ultimate turning point of the game, the interception, the strip by Troy Brown and the immediate fumble to return it to the Patriots, who seized up the ball again as if it had been planned that way and scored--not only a touchdown, but, to follow, a two-point conversion.
The pivotal moment there isn't even necessarily the touchdown and two points--that was the follow-through. It was the moment that Troy Brown, seeing the ball picked off, attacked Marlon McCree without even the slightest hesitation. This you can know by the fact that had he paused even for a second, even to think to himself, "damn," McCree would've been by him, your final score is 21-13 Chargers, and I'm writing here about how I knew all day, all week even, that we'd probably lose this one.
Those moments, moments where it's Troy Brown and Marlon McCree and the ball, moments where to believe isn't even a choice but an unconscious behavior--those are what Patriots football is about. Those moments are why I'll be wearing that battered jersey till it literally falls apart--even if I'm about as good at that kind of believing as I am at running a post pattern.
It's been quite a round of games so far, too--several people have commented on that this weekend. I can only imagine that the next round will be proportionately more intense, what with a Pats-Colts rematch and the feel-good Saints taking on the dominant Bears.
Frankly, I can't really even imagine it at this point.