By Gregory Hunt
The New England Patriots advanced to their eighth Super Bowl in franchise history by beating the Indianapolis Colts 45-7 in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium Sunday night. The win gave head coach Bill Belichick an NFL-record 21 postseason coaching victories. The Patriots will now face the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX February 1 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Quarterback Tom Brady will make an NFL-record sixth start in the Super Bowl.
The last two times the Patriots have faced the Colts, New England dominated Indianapolis with its running game, and Sunday was no exception. Running back LaGarrette Blount rushed for 148 yards and three touchdowns, making him the franchise’s all-time leader in playoff rushing touchdowns with seven. As a team, New England rushed the ball 40 times for 177 yards.
Thanks to the success of the running game, Brady didn’t need to take many risks throwing deep passes. He passed for only 226 yards, but three out of his 23 completions went for touchdowns. Brady completed passes to eight different receivers, including touchdown passes to a pair of receivers that hadn’t scored the entire season — fullback James Develin and tackle Nate Solder. Brady did throw one interception and was sacked once, but the offense converted a remarkable 66% of its third downs (12-of-18). Grade: A-
Even though the defense didn’t make a single sack, it was disruptive enough to force Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck into one of the worst games of his NFL career. He completed only 12-of-33 passes (36%) for a mere 126 yards, and he threw interceptions to cornerback Darrelle Revis and linebacker Jamie Collins. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich blocked two passes. Luck’s favorite target, wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, was held to only one catch for 36 yards. That catch was Indy’s only play of more than 20 yards.
Indianapolis had a little more success running the football, averaging 4.4 yards per carry, but thanks to New England’s early lead, Indy ended up rushing the ball only 19 times for 83 yards. The only time New England’s defense looked vulnerable was in the second quarter when Indianapolis engineered a 10-play, 93-yard touchdown drive that was aided by penalties to tackle Vince Wilfork (unnecessary roughness) and Collins (illegal contact). That turned out to be the Colts’ only scoring drive of the game. Grade: A-
In spite of raining, windy conditions, kicker Stephen Gostkowski had a solid game, reaching the end zone on six of eight kickoffs and making all six extra points and one field goal. Punter Ryan Allen had a fair night, averaging 36 yards on three punts and dropping only one inside the Indianapolis 20-yard line. The coverage team was solid, holding Colts return specialist Josh Cribbs to only 25 yards in return yardage. Linebacker Darius Fleming also recovered a muffed punt by Cribbs, setting up New England’s first touchdown of the game. Late in the second quarter, wide receiver Danny Amendola returned a punt 30 yards to set up another scoring drive. Grade: B+
The only mistake made by New England’s coaching staff may have been leaving Brady in the game for one more drive longer than necessary. With 7:24 remaining in the game, Brady lined up at quarterback with the Patriots already up by 38 points. This wouldn’t have been much of an issue if New England had run the ball three times, but on third down Brady attempted a deep pass and was hit by a pass rusher close to his left knee. He took only one more snap after that.
Otherwise, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels should be commended for putting together a balanced offensive game plan that never allowed the Indy defense to attack aggressively. Defensively, New England did an excellent job of keeping Luck contained in the pocket so that he couldn’t make plays with his legs. Luck was not credited with a single rushing attempt and he rarely had the opportunity to throw outside the pocket. Grade: A-
Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.