Job well done done by new guys

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – Tom Brady knew it would take time to get used to his new wide receivers.

That time has come. And so has Stephen Gostkowski’s.

The newcomers who replaced the NFL’s best clutch kicker and the Patriots top two receivers did what that trio – Adam Vinatieri, Deion Branch and David Givens – did so often. They made big plays in a dramatic playoff win.

“The one thing we can control is the way we perform,” Brady said. “This team has a great maturity about it, coached as well as any team in the league, and you just take it all in stride. You try to prepare like we know how to prepare.”

The preparation was much different this season.

Vinatieri and Givens left as free agents and Branch was traded after a contract holdout. So the Patriots drafted Gostkowski in the fourth round and settled on Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney as their top wide receivers after experimenting with several combinations.

The transition wasn’t always smooth. After all, it’s not easy to replace a kicker whose field goals won two Super Bowls, a receiver (Branch) who was MVP of one, and another (Givens) who caught scoring passes in two Super Bowl victories.

But their replacements were ready for their own big postseason plays Sunday when Caldwell and Gaffney each caught a touchdown pass and Gostkowski kicked the winning field goal in a 24-21 win over San Diego that sent New England to the AFC championship game next Sunday at Indianapolis.

Gostkowski made all three of his kicks a day after Vinatieri was 5-for-5 in the Colts’ 15-6 win at Baltimore. But Gostkowski did what his predecessor never did – kick a team playoff record 50-yard field goal. He made all three of his attempts, capped by a 31-yarder with 1:10 left that broke a 21-21 tie.

His teammates congratulated him after that final field goal.

“They said, “Good job,”‘ the cool rookie said. “I’ve been in the same position before and made the kick, so it wasn’t that big a deal.”

Caldwell and Gaffney also looked comfortable, even though neither had been a big-time receiver before this season.

Gaffney spent the last four seasons with Houston, then was released by Philadelphia Sept. 2 and wasn’t signed until the Patriots already had played five games.

Brady, the unflappable quarterback, was emotionally shaken when Branch, his friend and teammate the past four seasons, was traded to Seattle six days before the season opener. And he had little time to work with his new wide receivers.

“That takes a lot of time,” Brady said after that game. “It’s not as easy as a guy showing up and learning plays and going out there and saying, “All right, well this is how we’re going to do it.’ No. You have to go out and you have to read his body language and see how he runs certain routes and understand the timing that he has coming in and out of breaks.”

He threw just four completions to wide receivers in the opener. But as the season went on, they got used to each other.

Caldwell, who had 76 catches in four seasons with the Chargers, led the Patriots with 61 before grabbing 12 in the first two playoff games. One of them, a 49-yard gain down the right sideline on third-and-10 in the fourth quarter, set up Gostkowski’s winning field goal Sunday.

“We keep grinding it out, no matter what the situation,” Caldwell said. “I beat (cornerback Quentin Jammer) off the line and I tried to get in good position. I should have scored, but I stepped out of bounds. But we got the first down.”

He made two other big plays in the final seven minutes.

Caldwell recovered a fumble by Marlon McCree after the safety intercepted a pass on fourth down. Had McCree just knocked the ball down, San Diego would have taken over with a 21-13 lead with 6:16 to go. Then Caldwell caught a 4-yard scoring pass with 4:36 remaining and a two-point conversion tied it.

Gaffney had 11 receptions in the regular season. He has 18 for 207 yards in two playoff games and went over the 100-yard mark in each of them. His 6-yard touchdown catch 8 seconds before halftime cut San Diego’s lead to 14-10.

“That drive at the end of the half was a huge drive,” coach Bill Belichick said. “At the end, that third down (to Caldwell), a terrific play there, Brady made a great throw.”

Four plays later, Gostkowski made his first game-winning kick for the Patriots.

“The ball had great spin and came off my shin at the right place,” he said. “It just felt good.”

AP-ES-01-15-07 1804EST

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