FOXBOROUGH - As the Patriots’ preparations for last night’s AFC divisional round game against Denver began to wind down Thursday, there were some curious happenings at Gillette Stadium: Bill Belichick was downright chipper in his press conference; after practice, defensive captain Jerod Mayo said he and his teammates felt better prepared for their second meeting against Tim Tebow and the Broncos.
Mayo echoed words spoken a day earlier by offensive lineman Brian Waters.
It isn’t often the Patriots tip their hand, even slightly. But the comments of Waters and Mayo, Belichick’s sunny disposition, and a generally upbeat feeling in the locker room all pointed to a confident club.
Confidence became dominance last night.
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 a week from today against today’s Baltimore-Houston winner.
It is the sixth conference championship game appearance for the Patriots during the Bill Belichick era.
“It was a good, solid team effort. It’s been a lot of hard work this year. The players deserve this; they put up with me,’’ a self-deprecating Belichick said. “It’s an honor to be in the AFC Championship.’’
It was the first win for the Patriots in three postseason meetings against the Broncos, and also ended New England’s three-game postseason losing streak. Before last night, the Patriots’ last win in the playoffs was the 2007 AFC title game over San Diego.
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.
After Brady’s punt, a minor skirmish broke out, in which frustrated Broncos Robert Ayers and Von Miller were hit with unnecessary roughness penalties. But cooler heads quickly prevailed.
The Patriots cleared one hurdle early, figuring out a way to banish their troubling pattern of slow starts. They vaulted to a 35-7 lead after one half.
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.
The Patriots did something a little different, starting the game in no-huddle; generally they don’t switch into it until they’ve had a couple of possessions. But as it almost always does, the faster pace worked to their advantage, and they scored less than two minutes in, covering 80 yards in a tidy five plays.
The highlight of the drive was a 43-yard run by Aaron Hernandez, who lined up in the backfield, and Brady handed him the ball as though the versatile tight end was 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 final play of the opening drive, and Welker got into the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown.
“That run to Aaron really got us off to a great start,’’ Brady said. “He’s great with the ball in his hands. They threw a lot of stuff at us and I thought we really responded well.’’
It was the first time the Patriots scored first since Vince Wilfork, the only member of the New England defense who was on the field for the team’s last postseason win, fell on a fumble in the end zone against the Redskins a month ago.
It didn’t take long before the Patriots 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 41.
Brady and the offense needed seven plays this time, but the result was the same: touchdown. Rob Gronkowski did the honors, going belly-to-the-FieldTurf, tapping the ball up, securing it, and sliding a few yards like a penguin on ice.
“That catch that Gronk made in the corner was one of the best catches I’ve ever seen,’’ Brady said. “When you’re making plays like that, it’s not really about the defense, it’s about making spectacular plays. There were some great efforts.’’
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, the Patriots got down 17-0 and 21-0, respectively, before coming back to win; the Patriots were also behind early in wins over Denver and Philadelphia.
“You can’t start a game any better than that. Going down, scoring on the first drive, that’s what we’ve been aiming to do,’’ said Gronkowski, who finished with 10 receptions for 145 yards and three TDs. “It was a good thing we started off good. We played all four quarters of the game, the defense was playing well, and we were all just helping each other out.’’
“We decided coming out to this game that we were going to be a fast-starting football team and we were just going to go from there,’’ said Waters, who experienced a postseason victory for the first time in his 11-year career. “We weren’t going to wait for anything. We were just going to try and put our foot on the gas and see what happens.’’
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 safety Quinton Carter. Brady smacked himself in the helmet almost as soon as he let the ball go.
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: the first to Gronkowski, a 12-yard reception; the second a pretty 61-yarder to Deion Branch, who missed last month’s game against the Broncos because of a groin injury; and yet another to Gronkowski, a 19-yarder over the middle.
The Patriots’ defense, which played well, was not challenged much against the pass: Tebow completed just 3 of 10 passes for 28 yards in the first half.
The Patriots added just 10 points in the second half, but they didn’t need it. Denver had a third-quarter field goal and was kept out of the end zone after driving to the New England 3 in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots will be glued to their televisions today at 1 p.m., as they await to host the Ravens-Texans winner. New England did not face either team during the regular season.