FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots are back in the AFC championship game because of a dominant running attack and an opportunistic defense.
Oh, yeah, and Tom Brady, too.
You know, the guy who filled in as the holder on extra points when the starter got hurt.
In a game in which he became the first player to reach 6,000 yards passing in the postseason, Brady’s main roles were to adjust play calls at the line of scrimmage and hand the ball off.
New England rushed for 234 yards and beat the Indianapolis Colts 43-22 Saturday night to advance to Sunday’s game at Denver.
The Patriots (13-4) had six touchdown runs – including four from LeGarrette Blount – and four interceptions against Andrew Luck.
“The way our defense is getting the ball for us and, really, what we’ve done the last three or four weeks (with) the running game has just been awesome,” Brady said. “Hopefully, we can do it next week, too.”
And if he has to hold again for Stephen Gostkowski? Well, at least he has some experience.
Punter and holder Ryan Allen hurt his shoulder when he raced back after the ball was snapped over his head late in the second quarter. It resulted in a safety and the loss of Allen for the game.
When Stevan Ridley scored on a 3-yard run with 6:18 left in the third quarter, the Patriots went for a 2-point conversion. Ridley ran the ball in for a 29-15 lead.
“The holder was no factor at all. We were perfectly comfortable with Tom doing the holding,” Coach Bill Belichick said Sunday. “It was more just the strategic plan of either being up by 13 or being up by 14.”
Brady did get two chances to hold on extra points after fourth-quarter touchdowns and, as usual, came through.
He said the last time he held on extra points was in the 2000 Orange Bowl for Michigan. Michigan won 35-34 when Alabama’s try for an extra point in overtime failed. Brady also threw four touchdown passes in that game.
“Maybe I’ll try renegotiating my contract or something for doing more work,” he joked after Saturday night’s win. “I don’t even do it in practice. They said, ‘Get in there and do it,’ and I said, ‘What do I say?’ But we figured it out.”
Gostkowski said Brady does practice holding, just not every week.
“He’s not as fine-tuned as Ryan is, but he did a good job,” the kicker said.
Brady even pulled off a surprise punt on third down in New England’s previous game, a 34-20 win over Buffalo in the regular-season finale.
He does whatever it takes to win, even if it means throwing for fewer than 200 yards in each of his last three games.
“Tom did a lot,” wide receiver Julian Edelman said. “A lot of people don’t understand that when you have a quarterback who can go out and put you in the right play every time, good things are going to happen.”
So Brady handed the ball off 45 times and threw just 25 passes, with 13 completions for 198 yards. Blount rushed for 166 yards.
After a slow start in his first season with the Patriots, Blount ran for a total of four touchdowns in his last two regular-season games, then got four more against the Colts.
His 334 all-purpose yards (189 rushing, 145 returning kickoffs) against the Bills set a club record. The Patriots had 267 yards rushing in that game and have 645 in their last three.
Blount tied Curtis Martin’s team record of 166 yards rushing in a playoff game and is the only player besides Ricky Watters, who had five touchdowns for San Francisco on Jan. 15, 1994, with four or more in a postseason game.
“I’m really confident,” Blount said. “Those guys in front of me, they don’t get tired. I ain’t going to get tired. And if we’re going to be able to continue running the football like that throughout the playoffs, then I’ll be happy.”
The defense is bringing smiles, too.
Luck threw just nine interceptions in the regular season, but Alfonzo Dennard had two of New England’s four. The Patriots had three sacks and held Luck to a season-low 53.0 passer rating.
“Any time we can get turnovers and get Tom and Blount, Ridley, get all those guys the ball back, it’s good for us,” said linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who had his first career interception. “It’s good for the defense.”
Now the Patriots are in their third straight AFC championship game, with a chance at their second Super Bowl appearance in three years and sixth in 13 years.
So Belichick and his assistants must devise new plans to move the ball and stop a different opponent.
“Whatever happened during the regular season or some other year or some other time, or whatever reference point you want to take, is really not that significant,” he said. “What it’s about is how things go on that particular day, just being at our best on the biggest game of the year.”