FOXBOROUGH — Usually to be exacting you need a precision tool, like a scalpel or a tape-measure or Tom Brady’s right arm. But the Patriots were efficient and precise with a sledgehammer, pounding the Colts into submission and 2013 extinction.
The Patriots just kept chipping away at the Colts until they finally cracked in the fourth quarter, leaving the detritus of defeat all over Gillette Stadium — turnovers (four), missed red zone opportunities (0 for 2), key penalties (a third-quarter pass interference call that led to a touchdown) and what-ifs.
It’s what this punctilious Patriots team does. They don’t win the game as much as slowly force you to lose it.
Bill Belichick’s bunch erodes the other team’s confidence and resolve, like waves pounding against the shore. They wear you down and wear you out, physically, mentally, emotionally. It’s not an aesthetically pleasing manner of play, but it’s pragmatic and effective.
It was good enough for a 43-22 victory on a soggy Saturday night AFC Divisional playoff game and an appearance in the AFC title game for the third year in a row.
“Bill says it all the time, there are more games that are lost than won,” said Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich. “And you just try not to put yourself in a position to lose a game.”
The Patriots are masters at finding a way to not lose.
The opponent in the AFC Championship game is TBA, the winner of Sunday’s game between the Broncos and Chargers. But the style of play for the Patriots has already been determined, and it’s not the one we’re used to.
Brady spent more time using his golden arm to hand off than throw the ball to push his postseason record to 18-7. Brady was a game-manager, not a gun-slinger. New England ran the ball 46 times and sent Brady back to pass just 27. He was a pedestrian 13 of 25 for 198 yards and no touchdowns.
The Patriots plowed through the Colts’ defense for 234 yards rushing and a franchise-record six touchdowns. They were led by running back revelation LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for a Patriots’ postseason record-tying 166 yards and a team record four touchdowns.
“The plan is to always move the ball and score points. Whatever is the best way to do that, that’s what we’re going to do,” said Belichick.
Through all the injuries and absences, Belichick has determined that slowly squeezing the life out of teams, not hitting them with highlight-reel haymakers, is the optimal path for success for his team.
He doesn’t have a choice.
This Patriots team isn’t as talented as past versions. But, somehow, it seems better suited to the vagaries of the postseason because it’s not as reliant on Brady.
The final score doesn’t indicate it, but this was a game at the start of the fourth quarter, credit the Colts.
It was 29-22.
However, Blount broke the game open with a 73-yard touchdown with 12:55 remaining in the fourth quarter. The run was the second-longest in Patriots’ postseason history, trailing only Curtis Martin against Pittsburgh Jan. 5, 1997.
On the next possession, Andrew Luck (20 of 41 for 331 yards and four interceptions) flinched for good. He tossed his third interception of the game, this one landing in the arms of rookie linebacker Jamie Collins, who returned the pick 20 yards to the Indy 18. Blount’s Smash Brother, Stevan Ridley, wriggled in from the 1 with 11:12 left.
That made the Patriots a perfect five for five in the red zone. So much for missing Rob Gronkowski in the most valuable swath of NFL real estate.
If there was ever a team that you expected to come into Foxborough, and not beat themselves, it was the Colts. During the regular season, they were the least penalized team in the NFL and also committed the fewest turnovers.
That went out the window on their first drive of the game.
Luck, who was picked off three times against the Chiefs, threw a terrible interception to Alfonzo Dennard at the Indianapolis 29. Dennard returned the ball to the 2. Blount punched in from there on NewEngland’s first offensive snap, and it was 7-0 just 79 seconds into the game.
Blount capped a 10-play drive with another 2-yard touchdown run to make it 14-0 Patriots. It looked like the Colts might be more Foxborough cannon fodder. But Luck exacted revenge on Dennard, beating him for a 38-yard touchdown pass to LaVon Brazill, with 4:35 left in the first quarter.
The Patriots were calculating, but they weren’t flawless.
New England was up, 21-10, with under three minutes to go in the half, when calamity and injury struck.
They were ready to punt on fourth and 7 from their 44. However, Danny Aiken sailed the ball over the head of punter Ryan Allen, who retrieved it at the 3. He tried to lateral to Tavon Wilson, but the ball was knocked loose for a safety that made it 21-12.
Allen injured his shoulder on the play and was out for the game. There must be a pox on Patriot Place. How else do you explain a season of unending injuries that includes one to your punter in a playoff game?
Place kicker Stephen Gostkowski had to take over punting duties. Typical of their Next Man Up mien, Gostkowski’s first punt went for 53 yards. Gostkowski punted five times for a 41.8-yard average.
That’s the story of the 2013 Patriots. Even when they make a mistake or lose a player, they never lose their cool, their composure, or their execution.
They leave that to their opponents.