FOXBOROUGH — Playing in his first playoff game, running back LeGarrette Blount made it a night to remember with four touchdowns — three in the first half — to help power the Patriots to a 43-22 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Divisional round Saturday night at Gillete Stadium.
The Patriots advance to the AFC Championship game next Sunday for the third straight season and eighth time in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era, and await the winner of Sunday’s San Diego-Denver matchup.
If the top-seeded Broncos win, the second-seeded Patriots travel to the Mile High City; if the sixth-seeded Chargers pull off the upset, they must travel to Foxborough.
As celebratory yells from his players in the locker room leaked into the classroom where postgame press conferences are held, Patriots coach Bill Belichick seemed hard-pressed to suppress his smile.
“It was a great job by all of our players tonight — we had a good week of preparation, everyone was ready to go, we had big plays in all three phases of the game, and we were able to play from ahead,” Belichick said. “I have to give credit to everybody. I’m really proud of our football team, and we’re looking forward to moving on to a bigger game next week.”
Blount’s first three TD carries each went for 2 yards, with the third done with some flair: he jumped over left guard Logan Mankins, then rolled down the back of center Ryan Wendell and into the end zone.
The first two came behind the left side of the offensive line, Mankins and Nate Solder.
The fourth, in the fourth quarter, was a 73-yard run, a one-play touchdown drive that gave the Patriots a 36-22 lead with 13 minutes left in the game.
The talkative, 27-year-old, acquired from Tampa Bay on draft weekend last year in exchange for Olympic sprinter Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick, has been stellar in recent weeks, with 189 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the regular-season finale against Buffalo.
His four rushing touchdowns set a franchise record. The Patriots had six rushing touchdowns, also a franchise record. Stevan Ridley had the other two.
That meant the Patriots put 40-plus points on the board without Tom Brady (13 of 25, 198 yards) throwing a single touchdown or more than 200 yards, an unfathomable thought before the game.
“That was amazing,’’ Brady said. “We keep handing it off and those guys just run so hard and do such a great job running and finding the holes where they can just slice through there and gain as many yards as they can. It was pretty cool.”
“That’s what’s great about this year,” safety Devin McCourty said. “Nothing has been done the usual ‘Patriot Way,’ like it has been since I’ve been here. We just keep finding a way. It’s a win-or-done type of mode, so finding a way to win is key.”
Offensively, the Patriots converted 11 of 18 third-down attempts and were 5 for 6 in the red zone, finding success in two key areas in which they posted mixed results during the regular season. Defensively, New England held Luck to a completion mark under 50 percent (20 for 41, 331 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INTs). Indianapolis converted 40 percent of its third-down opportunities (6 for 15) and went 0 for 2 in the red zone.
Blount, who finished with 166 yards on 24 carries — his yardage matched the team postseason record set by Curtis Martin in 1997 against the Steelers – said he doesn’t mind carrying the load.
“But at the same time, if the run game that we have going isn’t working, we always have ‘12’ [Brady] back there, and he’s done amazing things. Whenever we need him to step up, that’s what he’s going to do,” Blount said.
The Colts, who pulled off an impressive, 45-44 come-from-behind win against the Chiefs in wild-card weekend a week ago, won the coin toss and elected to receive. On third down, quarterback Luck threw for LaVon Brazill, who was covered by Alfonzo Dennard.
Dennard, who sat out the Bills game with an injury, stepped in front of Brazill for his second interception of the season, and returned it to the 2, setting up Blount’s first touchdown.
After a three-and-out by Indianapolis on its second possession, the New England offense went back to work. A third-and-5 pass to Shane Vereen picked up 13 yards, then Julian Edelman had a 25-yard catch-and-run a play later.
Danny Amendola, another first-year Patriot playing in his first postseason game, got the Patriots in a goal-to-go situation with a 16-yard reception, and two snaps later, Blount was in the end zone again. On the pass to Amendola, Brady became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 6,000 yards in the postseason.
But the Colts put together a seven-play scoring drive culminating with a 38-yard sideline pass from Luck by Brazill. The second-year receiver made a great catch, running in the last few yards for the score.
The Patriots scored again in the second quarter, a methodical, 14-play drive in which their top three running backs — Blount, Vereen and Stevan Ridley — touched the ball.
Indianapolis answered with a 36-yard field goal from Vinatieri.
An odd series of events on special teams marred an otherwise strong first half for the Patriots.
Punting from their 44 after tgaking a 5-yard penalty, long snapper Danny Aiken made a rare mistake, launching the ball over the head of rookie Ryan Allen.
Allen chased the ball down, picked it up near the goal line and ended up getting clobbered. A Colts player smacked the ball into the end zone, and it was ruled a safety.
Allen took the ensuing free kick, but clutched at his right shoulder and left the game. Stephen Gostkowski took the remainder of the punts for the Patriots, and surprisingly, Brady served as his holder on extra points.
“It’s been a little while,” Belichick said of Brady holding. “But it’s that time of year; we only have 46 active guys, and everybody has to back up somebody.”