FOXBOROUGH — Some departed via free agency. Many were sidelined with gruesome, season-ending injuries. One of them left in handcuffs and leg irons.
There was more Patriot attrition against the Colts Saturday night. New England’s rookie punter bowed out with a wounded shoulder and was ably replaced by the placekicker. At the end of the night, after yet another Tom Brady target got hurt, the Patriots receiving corps looked like that of the 1959 New York Giants: three guys, 6-feet and shorter.
None of it seems to matter. As time goes by, the fundamental things apply. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady lead the New England Patriots into the AFC Championship Game.
The patchwork Patriots overwhelmed the not-ready-for-prime time Indianapolis Colts, 43-22, Saturday night at Gillette Stadium. Pile-driving LeGarrette Blount ran for four, count ’em four, touchdowns, as the Flying Elvises advanced to the conference championship game for the third straight season and the eighth time in the Belichick-Brady era.
“I thought it was a great job by all of our players,’’ said Belichick, who won his 19th career playoff game, one shy of Tom Landry’s NFL record. “Everybody was ready to go. We were able to play from ahead and had a lot of big plays in the third and fourth quarter. I’m really proud of our football team.’’
“It was great to be part of a team win like that,’’ said Brady. “Everybody contributed. The games just keep getting bigger . . . Hopefully we can do it next week, too . . . There’s only four teams standing after tomorrow. I know people doubted us out, but we’ve got a locker room full of believers.’’
One week from today the Patriots will play the winner of Sunday’s San Diego-Denver joust for the right to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVIII Feb. 2 in East Rutherford, N.J. If the Broncos win, the Patriots will play at Mile High Stadium, another dream matchup of Brady vs. Peyton Manning. If the Chargers beat Denver, the AFC Championship Game will be played at Gillette Stadium at 3 p.m.
The Next Man Up theme of the 2013-2014 Patriots was in full bloom Saturday as the Patriots took a 7-0 lead in the first 1:19 and never looked back. Stephen Gostkowski replaced punter Ryan Allen (shoulder) and Brady was forced to hold on extra point attempts for the first time in a long time.
“It’s that time of year,’’ said Belichick. “We know we only have 46 active guys. Everybody has to help out.’’
The takeaway performance came from Blount, who plowed through the line for three 2-yard touchdown runs in the first 20 minutes, then broke the game open with a fourth-quarter 73-yard burst up the gut which could have continued all the way up Route 1 into Norwood if Blount had wanted to keep running.
Give yourself a round of applause if you were paying attention back on April 27 when Belichick fleeced his patsy pal, Greg Schiano (then coach of the Buccaneers), acquiring Blount in exchange for the immortal Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick. Red Auerbach — who was Belichick before Belichick — made this kind of a swindle in 1983 when he picked up Dennis Johnson in exchange for Rick Robey. Ben Cherington had a similar moment of quiet genius last year when he acquired a little-known veteran reliever named Koji Uehara.
New England’s no-name defense complemented Blount’s ground dominance, stopping the Colts on every crucial third down and intercepting rising star Andrew Luck four times. Luck was able to overcome a 28-point third-quarter deficit in his first career playoff victory last week against Kansas City. There was none of that magic last night. The Colts don’t have a running game (69 yards on the ground) and New England exploited Luck’s urgency and inexperience. The Colts came into the game with a reputation as a team that would not beat itself.
Everyone beats themselves against the Patriots.
It was an unseasonably warm (57 degree) and rained through most of the night.
The Colts won the coin toss and elected to receive — a clear indication that this moment was too big for Indy coach Chuck Pagano. The entire football world knows that the Patriots want you to take the ball to start the game.
Indy took the ball and proceeded to play right into Master Belichick’s hands. On the Colts’ third play from scrimmage, Luck was intercepted by Alfonzo Dennard and Dennard ran it back to the 2. Blount bowled into the end zone on the next play and it was 7-0 after only one minute and 19 seconds of action.
The 7-0 lead quickly became 14-0 and then 21-7 with 10:54 left in the first half. All three touchdowns were scored by Blount, the 250-lb. sledgehammer from Oregon and Tampa Bay.
“The plan is always to move the ball and score points,’’ deadpanned Hoodie. “We had some success and stayed with it.’’
The Colts mounted a small comeback before intermission. Old friend Adam Vinatieri kicked a 36-yard field goal to cut the margin to 21-10, then a bad Danny Aiken snap on a punt attempt resulted in a Patriot safety and trimmed New England’s margin to 21-12. Allen hurt his shoulder in the safety scramble and Gostkowski did the punting for the rest of the night.
The visitors put up a fight after halftime and a 35-yard touchdown pass to LaVon (Bobo) Brazill cut the Patriot lead to 29-22 with five minutes left in the third.
Then came the gamebreaker. Blount. Up the gut. Seventy-three yards.
“He can run hard,’’ said Belichick. “He can make guys miss and he can go the distance.’’
It was 36-22 with 12:55 left. The rout was on. The Patriots will ride the LeGarrette Train all the way to the AFC Championship Game.