Patriots advance to AFC Championship
Big nights for Brady, Gronkowski in 45-10 rout of Broncos
FOXBOROUGH As the New England Patriots preparations for last nights AFC Divisional round game against the Denver Broncos began to wind down on Thursday, there were some curious happenings at Gillette Stadium: Bill Belichick was downright chipper in his pre-practice press conference; after practice, defensive captain Jerod Mayo admitted that he felt he and his teammates were better prepared for their second meeting against Tim Tebow and the Broncos.
Mayos words echoed ones spoken a day earlier by offensive lineman Brian Waters.
It isnt often that the Patriots tip their hand, even slightly. But the comments of Waters and Mayo, Belichicks sunny disposition, and a generally upbeat feeling in the locker room on Thursday all pointed to a confident club.
Confidence became dominance Saturday.
New England ended the Cinderella season of Tebow and the Broncos with a 45-10 victory, a wire-to-wire win that sends the Patriots into the AFC Championship game next Sunday against either Baltimore or Houston.
It is the sixth conference championship game appearance for New England during the Bill Belichick era.
The win was the first for the Patriots in three postseason meetings against the Broncos, and also ended the teams three-game postseason losing streak. Before last night, the Patriots last win in the playoffs was the 2007 AFC title game over San Diego.
Quarterback Tom Brady threw for 363 yards, an NFL postseason record-tying six touchdowns, and had one pretty nice punt, while Tebow completed just nine passes and was basically running for his life for much of the night.
The Patriots cleared one hurdle early, figuring out a way to banish their troubling pattern of slow starts in last nights AFC Divisional round matchup with the Broncos, taking a 35-7 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Denver won the coin toss and elected to defer, and the Patriots got the ball to open the game for only the second time this season. They scored less than two minutes in, covering 80 yards in a tidy five plays -- 8-yard pass over the middle to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, 5-yard carry by Green-Ellis, 17-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski, and then a 43-yard carry from Aaron Hernandez.
Hernandez lined up in the backfield on the play, and Brady handed him the ball as though the versatile tight end were a running back. Hernandez bobbled the ball behind the line of scrimmage, but secured it and took off.
The second-year player had a stellar week of practice and carried it into the game, with 87 yards from scrimmage in the first half.
Brady found Wes Welker on the next play, and Welker got into the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown.
It was the first time the Patriots scored first in a game since Vince Wilfork, the only member of the New England defense who was on the field for the teams last postseason win in the 2007 AFC Championship, fell on a fumble in the end zone against the Redskins a month ago.
It didnt take long before they added a second score.
With the Broncos driving on their first possession they picked up 14 yards on third-and-5 on a Tebow scramble, then 19 on a Willis McGahee run, putting them in New England territory Rob Ninkovich strip-sacked Tebow on second down.
Brandon Spikes got the loose ball, and New England took over at its own 41.
Brady and the offense needed seven plays this time, but the result was the same: touchdown. Rob Gronkowski got the honors, going belly-to-the-FieldTurf, tapping the ball up, securing it, and sliding a few yards.
The 14-0 start was in stark contrast to the final few weeks of the regular season, when New England frequently found itself in early holes. Against Miami and Buffalo in Weeks 16 and 17, it got down 17-0 and 21-0 respectively before coming back to win; the Pats were also behind early in Denver and Philadelphia.
About the only miscue for the Patriots in the first half came on their third possession, when an errant throw by Brady became an easy interception for rookie safety Quinton Carter.
Starting from the New England 24 after the pick, Denver got its only points of the half, a 5-yard touchdown run by McGahee, who willed himself over the goal line on the first play of the second quarter.
Not to be outdone, New England scored three times in the second quarter, all on passes from Brady. The first went to Gronkowski, a 12-yard reception, the second was a pretty 61-yarder to Deion Branch, who missed last months meeting with the Broncos due to a groin injury, and yet another to Gronkowski, a 19-yarder over the middle.
As they carved up the Broncos defense, Brady and Gronkowski set some NFL records: Brady passed Dan Marino for fifth place all-time in postseason passing yards, and his five passing touchdowns in the first half were also a postseason record. Gronkowskis three touchdown receptions set a single-season team postseason mark, and made him the 17th player in league history with three TDs in a playoff game, though just the second tight end the first was Dave Casper.
The Patriots defense, which did play well, was not challenged much against the pass: Tebow completed just three of 10 throws for 28 yards.
New England added just 10 points in the second half, but they didnt need those. Denver had a third-quarter field goal and was kept out of the end zone from the 3 in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots will watch Sunday's Ravens-Texans game at 1 p.m. to find out their opponent Jan. 22 at Gillette Stadium. New England did not face either team during the regular season.