The New England Patriots allowed Andrew Luck to throw for 331 passing yards, and Tom Brady didn't throw a touchdown pass. Just another year, another formula for victory and another appearance in an AFC championship game under Bill Belichick.
The shape-shifting Patriots have morphed into a power-running team heading into next weekend's conference final with all of their free-agent losses, massive injuries and other departures, and that was more than clear in their 43-22 divisional-round win over the Indianapolis Colts.
The Patriots will face the winner of Sunday's San Diego Chargers-Denver Broncos game. If the Chargers win, the game will be in Foxborough, Mass. next week. If the Broncos prevail, the Patriots will head to Denver for Brady vs. Peyton Manning XV.
Despite some plucky play by the Colts' Luck, he threw four interceptions and the Colts' defense couldn't stop the Patriots' running duo of LeGarrette Blount (166 rushing yards, four touchdowns) and Stevan Ridley (two touchdowns).
The Colts went up-tempo early offensively, but on the second play of the game, Luck threw a horrible interception, staring down his receiver, LaVon Brazill, the entire way. Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard picked it off, and returned it to the 2-yard line. One play later, Blount, whom the Patriots stole from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a preseason trade, rumbled in from there, led by a nice James Develin block, for a 7-0 lead.
The Patriots’ defense came to play early. It forced a three-and-out on the ensuing Colts possession, and Brady led the Patriots on a crisp drive — hitting 4-of-4 passes and attacking the middle of the defense, free of pressure — that ended on another short Blount touchdown run, and a 14-0 lead early in the first quarter.
Would this be a Patriots blowout? Or a reprise of Luck's wild-card heroics?
Luck snapped back quickly, quickly reminding everyone of his previous week's accomplishments against the Kansas City Chiefs. He hit Griff Whalen for a 22-yard pass amid heavy pressure on a key third-and-6, and then came back two plays later to drop a gorgeous pass to Brazill over the hands of Dennard for a 38-yard touchdown to cut the lead in half.
Early in the second quarter, Brady got the Patriots going again. He found Julian Edelman for completions of 27 and 13 yards, appearing to target corner Vontae Davis both times, and ended up converting another scoring drive on Blount’s third short touchdown run of the half, and a 21-7 lead.
The three rushing touchdowns tied a team record. Blount had a mere two scores in 13 games in the entire 2012 season with the Bucs.
Luck responded with a drive deep into New England territory, keeping the Colts out of third-and-long situations with a quick-rhythm offense. But he couldn’t connect with T.Y. Hilton — the previous week’s hero who was quiet early Saturday — in the red zone on a third-and-6 from the Patriots' 18, and the Colts settled for an Adam Vinatieri field goal to cut it to 21-10 with 5:40 left in the second quarter.
And right when it looked as if the Patriots were going to head into the half with a double-digit lead, they couldn’t convert a third-and-2 from midfield, and Bill Belichick chose to punt. After a delay of game penalty, a horrific snap went over Patriots punter Ryan Allen’s head, and after Allen fumbled the recovery the ball went out of the back of the Patriots’ end zone for a bizarre safety and a 21-12 Patriots lead.
Allen injured his shoulder on the play and didn't return to the game. He was replaced admirably by kicker Stephen Gostkowski for punting duties and Brady on kick holding. Gostkowski never had punted in an NFL game, and Brady hadn't held on kicks in years.
Luck started to move the ball and threaten to score again, but a bad-luck bounce of a throw off the hands of Colts fullback Stanley Havili landed into those of Patriots linebacker Don’t’a Hightower for an interception with 1:14 left in the half, running the Colts’ turnover total to six through six playoff quarters.
After a Patriots three-and-out to open the second half, Luck stepped up as the pocket collapsed and hit Hilton on a gorgeous 40-yard throw to flip the field and set the Colts up for a 21-yard Vinatieri field goal, chipping away at the lead again, to 21-15.
Right when it looked like the Patriots offense was deteriorating, Brady hit a wide-open Danny Amendola for a 53-yard completion, with Colts safety LaRon Landry appearing to be the guilty party. Then Brady escaped a pressure off a Colts stunt three plays later to convert a huge third-down pass for eight yards to Edelman.
After a Josh Gordy pass interference call covering Edelman put the ball at the Colts’ 5-yard line, Stevan Ridley converted on a tough third-and-goal TD run by Stevan Ridley. The two-point conversion — another Ridley carry — made it 29-15, Patriots. The nine-play, 88-yard drive was the Patriots’ fourth rushing touchdown of the night.
Back came the resilient Colts. Andrew Luck somehow found Hilton in traffic for 46 yards, and then to Brazill for a 35-yard touchdown in two straight plays that seemed to shock the Patriots and cut the lead back to seven. After his Chiefs comeback and all the fantastic moments he has provided his first two seasons, it shouldn’t be a surprise, but Luck more than held his own on the big stage.
But because of the Colts’ defense, it didn’t matter. Blount took the Patriots’ next play 73 yards, with great blocks from Logan Mankins and Michael Hoomanawanui, for a touchdown and a 36-22 lead. Only Ricky Watters (five) ever scored more rushing touchdowns in an NFL playoff game.
Luck then forced a bad pass early in the fourth quarter for his third interception, with versatile rookie linebacker Jamie Collins — easily the defensive star of the game for the Patriots — picking him off and setting up their sixth rushing score of the game, Ridley’s second, and a 43-22 lead.
Dennard capped the game with a pick, Luck's fourth of the game, with less than a minute to go.
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