SAN DIEGO -- Perhaps San Diego Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer is simply cursed in the NFL playoffs. With victory within grasp in an AFC divisional playoff against New England, Schottenheimer's Chargers, the top seed in the conference, made enough mistakes to give life to nearly beaten New England and allow the Patriots to escape with a 24-21 win at Qualcomm Stadium yesterday.
The Patriots, the No. 4 seed, advanced to the AFC championship against the No. 3 Colts in Indianapolis on Sunday. The Colts made it to the conference title game with a 15-6 win over the Ravens on Saturday.
The deciding score yesterday came on New England rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski's third field goal of the game, a 31-yarder with 1:10 left to cap a 72-yard drive. San Diego, without any timeouts remaining, scrambled on offense to the Patriots' 36-yard line, but Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding's 54-yard attempt to with eight seconds left fell short.
Gostkowski, the heir in New England to current Colts star kicker Adam Vinatieri, had a shaky start to the season but went 6-for-6 in playoff wins over the New York Jets and Chargers.
"It's all about getting comfortable. ... I feel like I'm getting more comfortable each game," said Gostkowski, who also had 50- and 34-yarders yesterday. "The more you do, the better you do and the more your team is on your side and that helps a lot."
Criticized for past playoff failures for too conservative play-calling, Schottenheimer had his postseason record fall to 5-13. Yesterday, he may have been too aggressive early in the game when he passed on the opportunity for a field goal of about 48 yards and went for - but failed to convert - a fourth-and-11 from the Patriots' 30-yard line in the first quarter.
"I thought we had a play that we could use that would make yardage," Schottenheimer said. "And the intention was to be very aggressive."
Schottenheimer, who has a cool relationship with Chargers general manager A.J. Smith, said he planned to return as San Diego's coach.
Schottenheimer's undoing yesterday was his team's mistakes. The Chargers had four turnovers, including three fumbles leading to 14 New England points.
The biggest one came with San Diego ahead 21-13 and a little more than six minutes left in the game.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's fourth-down pass was intercepted by Chargers safety Marlon McCree, but McCree was stripped of the ball by New England receiver Troy Brown, a former defensive back, and recovered by fellow receiver Reche Caldwell at the Chargers' 32-yard line.
The play turned out to be a double whammy for San Diego because Schottenheimer challenged, contending McCree was down when the ball came loose. He lost the appeal and a valuable timeout in the process.
Given new life, Brady (27-for-51, 280 yards, two touchdowns, three interceptions) engineered a quick touchdown drive, with Caldwell scoring on a 4-yard pass. The Patriots tied the game at 21 when running back Kevin Faulk took a direct snap and dived into the end zone for the two-point conversion.
McCree said he never considered simply knocking down the pass rather than catching it.
"I was trying to make a play, and anytime I get the ball, I'm going to try and score," McCree said.
The Chargers enjoyed excellent field position throughout the first quarter, but it was the Patriots - who had been bottled up near their end zone - who scored first late in the first period on Gostkowski's 50-yard field goal.