The marquee matchup heading into yesterday's AFC Championship Game between the Colts and Patriots was the high-powered Indy attack against Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel's cerebral defensive schemes. Ultimately, the Patriots won that key game of chess by confusing Peyton Manning and forcing five turnovers as a result.
But a largely overlooked aspect of the game that turned out to be just as important to the Patriots success was the play of the offensive line. By mixing the run and the pass well, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis kept Indy's defense guessing, and consequently, kept the dangerous Colts offense watching on the sidelines.
Tom Brady directed the balanced attack with an efficient day of passing while Antowain Smith recorded the first 100-yard day of his seven-game postseason career. Brady wasn't sacked in 37 passing attempts while the running game churned out 112 yards on 32 carries. Balance like that will almost always lead to victory, and the Patriots 24-14 win had every bit as much to do with the play of the offense as their awe-inspiring defense.
On the surface the offensive performance was impressive, especially during the first three quarters when the Patriots weren't forced to punt a single time. New England held a 2-1 edge in time of possession (19:08-10:52) at halftime and marched up and down the field at will.
Making that feat even more impressive was the shuffling along the offensive line the Patriots were forced into because of injuries. Damien Woody was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury and missed the game. Russ Hochstein took his spot at left guard. Right tackle Tom Ashworth was shaken up in the second quarter and Brandon Gorin replaced him briefly.
The changes were the first for the Patriots since Sept. 28 in Washington. That also happens to be the last time New England lost a game. Since then, the Patriots rattled off 13 straight wins – all with the same starting offensive line. Belichick cited the continuity up front as a major factor for that success, but was equally impressed with the group's effort on Sunday.
"I thought they did a nice job of opening up holes in the running game," Belichick said during his Monday press conference. "They were able to keep the rush off of Brady. [Offensive line coach] Dante [Scarnecchia] has done a terrific job with that group. Brandon stepped in at right tackle and Russ was in there at left guard and we maintained that continuity."
According to left tackle Matt Light, Belichick was adamant last week that Brady wasn't to be touched during the game. Not only wasn't he sacked at all, but Brady felt very little pressure throughout the day, oftentimes receiving extra time to find his receivers in the clear.
"It was real important for us to go out there and establish the tempo," Light said after the game. "We didn't want to get into a mentality where we were going out there to just run the ball and Peyton Manning off the field. We talked all week, 'we have to get first downs. We have to have production. We have to score points.'"
One of the few drawbacks to the offense's effort was its inability to find the end zone. After opening with a touchdown drive for the fifth consecutive game, the Patriots were forced to settled for five Adam Vinatieri field goals and turned the ball over once on their other six trips into Indy's red zone. That 1-for-7 effort inside the Colts 20 was good enough to win yesterday, but it has to be cause for concern.
The other negative in an otherwise solid day of work came in the fourth quarter. The Colts had no answers for the Patriots attack for three quarters. The Patriots began the day with scoring drives of 65, 67, and 52 yards – all of which used at least 11 plays. That's ball control at its finest.
The third quarter saw two more Vinatieri field goals and suddenly Ken Walter was the unseen punter and not Hunter Smith, who drew attention because he hadn't been called upon in the Colts previous two playoff games.
But things changed in the fourth quarter when the Patriots needed only to run out the clock with a 21-7 lead. Brady threw his first interception at home this season as the final period got underway and things got worse from there. In three possessions from that point on, the Patriots managed 10 yards, and 5 of those came on a Colts encroachment penalty. The inability to register a single first down allowed the Colts to stay in the game despite the Patriots total dominance to that point.
The running game was particularly disappointing down the stretch. After recording efficient runs – plays that gain 4 yards or more or result in a first down or a touchdown – in 12 of their first 23 rushing attempts, the Patriots managed just one in their final seven attempts. Smith was swarmed by a Colts defense that sold out to stop the run and Brady failed to capitalize on Colts soft coverage, going 2-for-6 for 14 yards with an interception in the fourth quarter. And the completions came on the first two plays of the quarter.
"Obviously we didn't do everything we wanted to do in the red zone," Light said. "We turned the ball over and we didn't get the seven when we needed to. But overall I think it was just a great team victory again."
That's been the story of this 2003 Patriots team: consistent play in all three phases. The defense might garner most of the headlines – and rightly so with its record-setting performance – but without the solid contributions of the offense and special teams, the Patriots might be planning for the draft right now instead of making travel arrangements to Houston.