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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

On to the Super Bowl

Patriots thrash Colts, 24-14; to play Panthers in bid for second title

FOXBOROUGH -- In the end, it was more celebration than contest, more coronation than competition.

The New England Patriots are going to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in franchise history, the second time in three years. A week from Sunday, it'll be New England vs. the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII at Reliant Stadium in Houston.

In a final, flurried, fun-filled afternoon at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots won their 14th consecutive game yesterday, a 24-14 dismantling of the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game. There was little artistic about the win, but the Patriots again demonstrated that theirs is the best defense in the NFL.

"To win 14 in a row is unbelievable," said ever-blessed quarterback Tom Brady. "Who does that? Nobody does that. Still, the goal really hasn't been achieved if we don't get 15. Then it's all for naught . . . But I'm proud to be quarterback of a team that's going to the Super Bowl two times in three years." Brady and the Patriots won the 2002 Super Bowl in New Orleans against the Rams, one of the epic upsets in football history. This time, New England will be favored. Bill Belichick's 16-2 team is the best team in franchise history, and by closing with 15 straight wins could go down as one of the best in the annals of the NFL.

Just look at what happened yesterday. Peyton Manning and Co. came to Foxborough on the heels of two of the greatest offensive performances in playoff lore, then limped out of Gillette with an acute case of Mad Colt Disease. Indianapolis turned the ball over five times and bumbled a punt attempt (errant snap) into a safety. The previously indomitable Manning was intercepted four times -- thrice by Ty Law -- completed fewer than half of his passes, and didn't get his team on the scoreboard until the third quarter.

"The real thrill was being able to do it in front of our fans," said Patriots owner, Bob Kraft -- the most popular and successful Boston pro sports owner since Walter Brown steered the Bill Russell Celtics. "The fans are the 12th man that helped us go 12-0 [including the exhibition season] at home."

Upon accepting the Lamar Hunt trophy, signifying AFC supermacy, Kraft told the lingering 68,000, "We want you all down there in Houston and let's bring that trophy back."

With so many veterans of Super Bowl XXXVI still around, the Patriots did not go overboard in celebration (remember the Red Sox and that ridiculous wild-card clincher?). They donned AFC champion hats and T-shirts, but there were no champagne baths in the winner's locker room.

"It's just another game for us in a way," said All-Pro defensive end Richard Seymour. "It's a step on the way to our ultimate goal."

They will miss the zany masses who filled the Razor 12 times. In the second year of the stadium's existence, the Patriots' crib became the toughest place to win. Fans braved traffic, heat, rain, snow, 3-foot drifts, parking nightmares, and wind chill temperatures of 10-below zero. None of it mattered. They came early, stayed late, and shook down the thunder every time the PA played Gary Glitter's Rock 'n' Roll Part 2. Sixty-eight thousand 12th men and women. Not bad.

The final home game could not have started in better fashion for New England. With friendly flakes falling, the Patriots took the opening kickoff and marched 65 yards in 13 plays, scoring on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Brady to David Givens. The Patriots led, 7-0, and just as important, almost half of the first quarter was already over.

Manning moved the Colts to the New England 7-yard line, then was intercepted in the end zone by Rodney Harrison. It was a terrible throw. It was also Manning's first interception of the 2004 playoffs. He had eight touchdown passes and no picks in the indomitable victories over Denver and Kansas City.

A 31-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal made it 10-0 early in the second, Then came the first and most spectacular of Law's three interceptions. Think Carl Yastrzemski, April of '67, ninth inning, grabbing Tom Tresh's liner to deep left in Billy Rohr's no-hit bid. A 25-yard field goal followed and it was 13-0. At that point, the Colts' only two possessions had both ended with interceptions.

Indy's next offensive series resulted in the Colts lining up for their first punt of the playoffs. Colt long snapper Justin Snow hiked the ball over Hunter Smith's head. The rusty punter gave chase and booted the ball across the opposite goal line. The result of the chaos was a Patriot saftey and a 15-0 lead.

What are the odds? Turns out the snapper's name is also the answer to a question he was posed. As in, "Have any trouble snapping the ball?"

"Just in snow."

The first-half numbers hardly could have been worse for Indianapolis: four tournovers (two in the red zone), zero points, and a quarterback rating of 48.6 (compared with Brady's 97.7) for Manning.

The Colts gave the Patriots a couple of scares in the second half, but any time things got tight, the New England defense did the job.

So like the Kennedys in Massachusestts, the Patriots went undeated in their home state. And now there's only one game left. Indoors -- without all the trappings of home.

"I don't think we're going to have to worry about the snow or 20-below wind chills or anything like that," said Vinatieri, the undisputed king of bad-weather kickers.

No more snow. No more cold. No more Gillette.

Just the Super Bowl. The final crowning for the best football team New England ever has known.

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