Make your plans Patriots fans, your team is headed for Houston and Super Bowl XXXVIII.
The Patriots stopped the unstoppable Colts offense to the tune of a 24-14 win. Ty Law picked off Manning three times, Rodney Harrison had another and all told, the Colts offense turned the ball over five times. Oh yeah, and they had to punt as well.
It really wasn't even as close as the score indicated. The Patriots had several chances to widen the lead with trips to the red zone but came up with field goals instead. Vinatieri had five on the day.
"I think we had a lot of different guys that stepped up for us today and made some plays for us," Richard Seymour. "I think it had to be a total team effort. I can't say enough about our secondary and what they meant to this defense today. Ty Law had a big day for us, Rodney Harrison, Tyrone Poole. But that is something they have been doing all year long for us. Our game plan didn't change a whole lot just because Indy was coming into town. It had to be a total team effort in order for us to win. I think they did a good job of being physical with their receivers and we got pressure on them up front. I think Jarvis Green had a big day for us. Ty Warren came in and had a couple of pressures. But for the most part it had to be a total effort and that's what we did."
Still with Green sacking Manning three times and the rest of the defense making the Colts QB think twice, three and four times before he released, it was yet another amazing display by the Homeland Defense.
"He's always hit his first receiver," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "We looked at it, and for the last five weeks no one does a better job of hitting the first read than Peyton Manning because the ball is there and they catch it. We did a good job of taking away the first and second reads and making him…that's just like a pass rush as far as I am concerned, taking those things away. He wants to plant his feet and then throw."
There couldn't have been a hotter quarterback going into a game than Peyton Manning but he was quickly cooled off in the first half by a defense that used all the media attention that Manning got all week as motivation.
"No question, because I said it, one guy cannot win a championship," Harrison answered when asked if the team had used the massive publicity surrounding Manning as motivation. "This is the ultimate team sport, football, and one guy can't do it by himself. So it really gave us motivation and it really fueled the fire because we got tired of it. We give him all the credit in the world, he's great quarterback, but one guy can't win. It takes a team and that's what we are."
"We did hear about Peyton Manning and it got a little monotonous at times just hearing, 'Peyton Manning, Peyton Manning,'" Seymour said.
New England won the opening toss and immediately drove down the field starting from its own 35. Brady converted a fourth and 1 with a keeper and then hit Branch for 14 yards on a third and 5 from midfield. On third and 4 from the 16, Brady, with lots of time, found Branch for 9 yards to set up a first and goal from the Colts 7. From that spot, Brady had Givens wide open on the left side of the field and Givens went in for the game's first score and the early 7-0 lead.
"The first drive was very important for us," Givens said. "Our goal was to come out and score on the first drive of the game and the last few weeks we've done that. I think what that does is puts a lot of confidence in our coaches, it puts confidence in our defense and it puts confidence in the offense as well. So whenever you can score on the first drive that just gives our team the momentum."
It looked like Manning and his offense would answer right back when they drove down to the Patriots 5-yard line but on a third and 5 play, Rodney Harrison picked off the Colts quarterback to stop the drive cold. The play was intended for Marcus Pollard in the middle of the end zone, but the strong safety had good position and nabbed the bullet.
"It was a big play for us," Seymour said. "It seemed like they had a drive going and made some conversions on us and Rodney came up with a big play in the end zone and kind of stopped that momentum that they were starting to gain. Ty Law did the same thing on a couple of drives as well. That's what it's all about. It's about making plays when your number is called and those guys have been doing a good job for us all year long."
The Patriots took the turnover and converted it into three points on a 32-yard field goal by Vinatieri. On third and 7 from the Colts 13, Brady nearly had his first interception this season at Gillette Stadium, but Nick Harper of the Colts dropped a ball intended for Troy Brown. On the drive, Brown had catches of 8, 11 and 18 yards.
New England had to settle for another field goal after Ty Law picked off Manning for the second consecutive possession of the Colts. Law made a beautiful catch as he crept over from the right sideline to cut off the throw.
On the scoring drive, New England went 52 yards on 11 plays. Vinatieri was good on the 25-yard kick to up the Patriots lead to 13-0 with just over eight minutes left in the first half.
New England's defensive dominance and big plays continued when Jarvis Green broke into the Colts backfield and sacked Manning for a 9-yard loss on second and 8 from the Indy 37. After a 7-yard completion, the Colts were forced to punt for the first time in 10 playoff quarters. Perhaps they were a bit rusty because the Justin Snow long snap to punter Hunter Smith sailed over his head. Smith alertly kicked the rolling ball out of the end zone. The result was a safety and a 15-0 lead for New England.
After the Colts free kick, New England took over at the Colts 40 but on a second and 17 play (Tom Ashworth was called for a false start on the prior play), Bethel Johnson caught a pass on the left sideline but during his second effort to gain a few more yards, fumbled and Indy recovered.
But the Colts could not keep a drive going to save their playoff life. On third and 7 from the Patriots 22 and the clock past the two-minute warning, Marvin Harrison took a pass over the middle and was hit by his Harrison counterpart of the Patriots. The tackle jarred the ball loose and Tyrone Poole pounced on it for the Colts third turnover of the game.
The Patriots ran out the clock to go into the locker room with the two-score lead.
The Colts finally put together a scoring drive to start the second half. Edgerrin James and Dominic Rhodes combined for 52 yards after Rhodes returned the kick off 33 yards to the 48-yard line. The scoring play was a James run off tackle for 2-yards.
In two plays, a 28-yard pass to Larry Centers and a 17-yarder to Brown, the Patriots were threatening, down on the Colts 12-yard line. But the drive stalled after two incompletes and a Faulk catch that was a yard short of the first down. Vinatieri did get three points back with a 27-yard field goal to make the score 18-7.
After the Colts went three and out on its next possession, the Patriots tacked on three more with a 21-yard field goal. While the lead was increased to 21-7, the Patriots had yet another red zone trip come up without a touchdown. Antowain Smith went over the 100-yard rushing mark on the drive that ended on the Colts 3-yard line.
If the Colts were the same team that pounded the Broncos and Chiefs on the way to this game (or if the Patriots defense was the same as those two teams') coming up with only three might have mattered.
That wasn't the case up to this point and when Willie McGinest sacked Manning for a loss of 7 and Law intercepted Manning for his second pick of the day, the trend continued. Manning was flushed right on the play and overthrew James. Law dove and made the catch right at the sideline.
When Brown caught a deflected pass to get down to the Colts 8, it looked like the game might be sealed. But on third and goal from the three, Brady's no-pick streak ended when Walt Harris got in front of a streaking Dedric Ward in the end zone for the turnover.
It was not the Colts or Manning's day however. After driving to the Patriots 23, another Jarvis Green sack of Manning knocked the Colts back to the 30. That set up a fourth and 13 situation that Indy had to go for – much to Ty Law's delight.
The Pro Bowl, All Pro corner came up with his third interception of the day. It was a pass intended for Marvin Harrison who had been held to only 2 catches for 11 yards up to that point. With just over eight minutes left to play, one could imagine the groans on the Colts sideline.
But those groans changed to murmurs of hope when Manning drove his team 67 yards to close the game to one touchdown. New England, in mostly a prevent defense, made Indy work for every yard but Manning converted a huge fourth and 8 with a 12-yard pass to Troy Walters and then a third and 6 with an 8-yard completion to Harrison. The score went 7 yards to Pollard.
That left 2:27 left to play. The Colts attempted a quick onside kick that was fielded cleanly by Christian Fauria putting the Patriots offense first and 10 at its own 44.
New England needed to convert a first down or two to run out the clock but couldn't. A Smith run for no gain and two straight incompletes forced the punt. Walter's kick hit the end zone and the Colts had 2:01 to tie the game.
"Nothing doing," said the Patriots defense. Manning dropped back to pass on four straight plays, got flattened by Green after one of them, and came up with nothing.
So the Patriots were right back to where they were before the Colts took over, with only a first down needed to start making plans for Houston. But this time, the Patriots were within field goal range of a 10-point lead.
Things could have gotten a lot more complicated when Brady bootlegged on third and 6 and coughed up the ball. The Colts recovered but it was clear Brady was down before the ball came loose. Still, the play needed a review before New England was awarded the ball.
With the ball back in the Patriots hands, Vinatieri set up for a 34-yard field goal and let the clock wind down to :55, then called the team's second timeout. When he finally made his attempt, flashbulbs burst, the kick was good and the Patriots had a 24-14 insurmountable lead.
Brady was 22 of 37 for 237 yards passing with a touchdown; identical numbers to Manning except in the interception category where Manning had four to Brady's one.
Troy Brown, "the football playing dude" as his head coach calls him, had 7 catches for 88 yards. David Givens had 8 catches for 68 yards and a touchdown.
Perhaps the best news is the continued ground success of Antowain Smith with his 100 yards on 22 carries.
"Antowain Smith was big for us today running the way he did, eating up the clock and keeping their offense off the field and we were able to get turnovers," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "Put those two things together and you have a Patriots victory."
"Good for him," left tackle Matt Light said of Smith's 100 yards. "He said he wanted to get 100 [yards] on his way back to Houston. Hey, that's a goal of ours every week. As an offensive line, as a unit, we strive to open up holes and get those guys yardage. 100 yards is our goal, and if he got that then we are all doing pretty good."
With his four-interception performance in the playoffs thus far, Law set a new Patriots franchise record for such a deed.
It's on to Houston, folks! But the team in the home locker room knows there is still work to be done.
"You don't want to be remembered as the second best team in football," Seymour said. "I think our ultimate goal all year long has been to be the best team in football. We know we have that football team, but we still have to go out and prove it. Nothing is given to you in this league.
"It was a hard fought effort. Indy was a good football team. It's just another game for us on the way to our ultimate goal."