FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- On the day when the New England Patriots took the biggest step on their path to a perfect season, they were less than perfect.
You might even call them flawed.
Their quarterback threw three interceptions. Their star wide receiver caught one pass for 18 yards. They gave up 311 yards to an offense that was missing its best player and had its next two best players limping.
If this was the best performance from the best team in the best conference in the best league, the NFL isn't as good as we thought.
New England's coaching, however, was very good. NFL Coach of the Year Bill Belichick and his staff kept pushing the right buttons at the right times, providing the difference yesterday in a 21-12 victory over the San Diego Chargers in the AFC championship game.
Afterward, Belichick praised his players for winning and said coaching them was his privilege. But he was just as responsible for the outcome.
In the first half, the Patriots were out-gained 204 yards to 139. The Chargers held the ball for more than 60 percent of the first half. And despite repeated attempts to move the ball downfield, the Patriots had no pass play of longer than 14 yards.
"We couldn't get drives going," quarterback Tom Brady said. "It just felt like everything was a struggle."
So in the second half, the coaches decided to try something else. Actually, they decided to try everything else.
The Patriots came out with a variety of formations designed to keep the Chargers off-balance. They used a lot of three-tight-end sets, some with two tight ends and two backs and some spread formations.
"We wanted to force them to defend everything," Belichick said. "From our spread offense to our tightened-down offense, from the vertical passing game to the intermediate passing game to screens and the whole works. I thought [offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels] and the offensive coaches did a great job of coming up with that."
After rushing for 16 yards in the first half, New England's Laurence Maroney had 106 in the second. And Brady, working the short and intermediate field, completed 78 percent of his second-half passes.
The combination of Maroney's runs and Brady's short passes provided the game-defining drive. With a nine-point lead and 9:13 left, Brady took over on his own 13-yard line. Eight Maroney runs and four short passes later, the game was over.
Defensively, it wasn't always pretty. But it was pretty when it counted. The Patriots stopped three San Diego drives within the New England 9.
That was particularly significant considering that in the regular season, the Patriots allowed touchdowns on 58.5 percent of possessions inside their 20. That was the sixth-worst percentage in the NFL.
"We were very well prepared," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "The coaching staff had a very good grasp of what they were trying to do.
"We'd see a formation and would be able to check into something and get the right play called and do a nice job with it."
The play of the day came on third-and-one on the Patriots' 4 in the third quarter. Linebacker Junior Seau, 39, looking more like 29, blew through the center-guard gap and tackled Michael Turner for a 2-yard loss.
Turner was playing because starter LaDainian Tomlinson aggravated a knee injury on the Chargers' first possession.
Dan Pompei writes for the Chicago Tribune.
San Diego 3 6 3 0-12
New England 0 14 0 7-21
First quarter SD-FG Kaeding 26, 2:55.
Second quarter NE-Maroney 1 run (Gostkowski kick), 13:48. SD-FG Kaeding 23, 9:14. NE-Gaffney 12 pass from Brady (Gostkowski kick), 3:51. SD-FG Kaeding 40, :08.
Third quarter SD-Kaeding 24, 8:36.
Fourth quarter NE-Welker 6 pass from Brady (Gostkowski kick), 12:15. A-68,756.
First downs 17 25
Total Net Yards 311 347
Rushes-yards 22-104 31-149
Passing 207 198
Punt Returns 3-16 0-0
Kickoff Returns 4-84 5-92
Interceptions Ret. 3-14 2-7
Comp-Att-Int 19-37-2 22-33-3
Sacked-Yards Lost 1-4 2-11
Punts 5-38.0 4-40.0
Fumbles-Lost 1-0 1-0
Penalties-Yards 1-5 2-19
Time of Possession 26:40 33:20 Rushing-San Diego, Turner 17-65, Sproles 3-34, Tomlinson 2-5. New England, Maroney 25-122, Moss 1-14, Faulk 1-8, Evans 2-7, Brady 2-(minus 2). Passing-San Diego, Rivers 19-37-2-211. New England, Brady 22-33-3-209. Receiving-San Diego, Chambers 7-90, Jackson 6-93, Gates 2-17, Sproles 2-5, Turner 1-5, Tomlinson 1-1. New England, Faulk 8-82, Welker 7-56, Stallworth 2-11, Moss 1-18, Evans 1-13, Gaffney 1-12, Maroney 1-9, Watson 1-8.