Visions of Gillette Stadium will dominate the dreams of Peyton Manning for yet another offseason as once again, the Patriots defense did to him what few other squads can.
With a defensive effort for the ages, the Patriots suffocated Manning while Corey Dillon ran for 144 yards (over 200 rushing yards as a team) and Tom Brady orchestrated his team to 20 points to the Colts 3 in snowy and slick conditions.
It's on to the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh.
With all the Colts offensive hype going in, it took until their third possession of the game to get a first down, but it wasn't until their sixth try -- with no time left in the first half -- that they actually put points on the board.
As for the Patriots, they struck first, albeit with 10:40 left in the second quarter. New England extended a 16-play drive that started on its own 16. With a steady dose of Dillon running and then Brady passing, New England chipped its way downfield to the point where it had a fourth and goal from the Colts 1 to deal with. The Patriots elected to go for six and Dillon banged it in behind right guard but a costly false start penalty on Matt Light negated the score and the Patriots settled for a 24-yard Vinatieri field goal.
After Mike Vrabel stripped Manning of the ball resulting in a 12-yard loss on Indy's possession that followed, the Colts signal-caller looked rattled and threw two straight incompletions. Indy punted for the fourth straight time and New England took over at its 39. After a Brady miss, Dillon knocked off a 42-yard run down the right sideline to the Colts 19. From there, the Patriots could only gain another 6 yards and Vinatieri nailed his second field goal of the day, a 31-yarder for a 6-0 Patriot lead.
That's when Tedy Bruschi caused the game's first turnover. The Colts were second and 17 after tackle Jake Scott was flagged for holding. Manning dumped off a pass to Dominic Rhodes but Bruschi did a beautiful job taking on his would-be blocker and playing himself off into Rhodes. As he corraled him, Bruschi also managed to strip Rhodes of the ball and before the two fell to the ground, Bruschi had it.
Even though New England had to punt three plays later, Bruschi's effort thwarted the Colts who were on the Patriots 39 at the time; when they took the ball back, they were back on their own 28 with 1:52 left in the first half.
It didn't take long for Manning to drive his team into scoring range, working Brandon Stokely and James down to the Patriots 22.
Just at that point, the snow, almost on a Patriots cue, began to fall heavily, increasing the drama of the half's final seconds. Indy managed to get to the Patriots 12 but not before Asante Samuel laid a crushing hit on Stokely on a 5-yard, first down catch. With the clock about to expire, Indy had to settle on a Mike Vanderjagt 23-yard field goal to bring his team within three at 6-3.
The snow continued at a good clip as the second half opened and the footing was becoming more and more unsure. Like the first half, both teams started slow offensively but on the Patriots second possession they hit paydirt.
A 17-yard completion to Christian Fauria got the Patriots to their 29. From there it was a ground attack featuring Dillon and Kevin Faulk. After six runs gaining at least 4 yards at a time, Brady hit Patrick Pass on third and three down to the Indy 24. New England went back to the ground until Brady found David Givens dragging across the end zone on third and five from the 5.
The 15-play drive ate 8:16 off the clock. More importantly, it gave the Patriots a two-score lead at 13-3 after three quarters.
New England continued its amazing mastery of Manning and his offense, holding the Colts to five plays on their next series. Once it had the ball back, New England embarked on yet another monster series, this one a 14-play drive capped by a Brady plunge from 1-yard out. The killer play was a 27-yard ramble by Dillon from the Colts 28. Dillon nearly scored but stepped out at the 1 just before his dive into the end zone.
The drive took another 7:24 off the clock and left a mere 7:10 in the game with the Patriots up, 20-3. It also gave Dillon 129 yards on the day to that point along with Faulk's 57.
With as little hope as the Colts had at that point, all was lost when Reggie Wayne fumbled on the Colts next play from scrimmage. Manning hit him for a gain of 12 but Rodney Harrison and Roman Phifer knocked the ball loose on the tackle and Bruschi recovered.
That sealed the deal for the Patriots. With just seconds on the clock, the Patriots defense put the exclamation point on its efforts with a Harrison interception in the end zone in garbage time.