FOXBOROUGH — The New England Patriots are headed back to the Super Bowl, their sixth of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era, after a 45-7 dismantling of the overmatched Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium on Sunday night.
Getting to the Super Bowl is a tremendous achievement, but the Patriots seemed to particularly enjoy their celebration, which began with several minutes left in the game. They were hugging one another, saluting the crowd, and there were smiles on every face.
Even Belichick played to the crowd during the trophy ceremony, announcing, “I only have one thing to say: We’re on to Seattle,” a play on his infamous news conference, in which he said, “We’re on to Cincinnati,’’ after the Patriots were routed by the Chiefs in Week 4.
The Patriots’ party continued in the locker room, as players took turns holding the silver Lamar Hunt Trophy, hamming it up for photographers in their white AFC Champions T-shirts and matching hats.
They weathered the difficulties of the first month of the regular season, battled through the adversity of an unfamiliar spot, and seem to genuinely believe in each other and enjoy one another’s company.
The Patriots will face the Seahawks on Feb. 1 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Super Bowl XLIX. Seattle won the NFC Championship in overtime against the Packers, 28-22, Sunday afternoon.
Unlike a week earlier, when the Patriots needed every bit of the 60-minute game to beat Baltimore, there was little suspense Sunday night. The Patriots led 7-0, then 14-0, and even when the Colts closed the gap to 14-7 with a long second-quarter drive, it never really seemed as if Indianapolis was threatening.
“We got off to a good start; we had a big turnover on special teams that gave us a boost,” captain Matthew Slater said. “I didn’t expect it to go like it did tonight. We were fortunate to get up on them early and we kept our foot on the gas.”
The Patriots got a Stephen Gostkowski field goal before halftime to make it 17-7, scored to open the third quarter, with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels pulling another razzle-dazzle play out of his bag of tricks, and the rout was on.
Belichick has more playoff wins than any coach in league history with 21 (he won one, against the Patriots, when he was with Cleveland), breaking a tie with Tom Landry.
Brady, who last week became the first NFL quarterback with 19 postseason wins, is the first with 20, and will become just the second player to play in six Super Bowls, joining former Bills and Broncos defensive tackle Mike Lodish.
Asked about his ever-lengthening list of accomplishments, Brady sort of shrugged.
“Well, look, I haven’t had much time to reflect. I think we’re right in the middle of it. It was a great team win. We needed it from all three phases and to make it to this point is a great accomplishment for our team,” he said. “Hopefully our best is yet to come.”
Under steady rain and winds that intensified as the game went on, the Patriots did what they’ve done against the Colts in recent meetings: run the ball at will.
Like last year when these teams met in the postseason, LeGarrette Blount did much of the damage on the ground, topping 100 rushing yards early in the third quarter. He finished with 30 carries for 148 yards and three touchdowns.
The carries are a team record for a playoff game; Blount also has seven postseason rushing touchdowns, all against the Colts, which is a team record.
“Write the best thing I can say possible,” center Ryan Wendell said of Blount. “He never ceases to amaze me. LeGarrette gives us a lot of credit, but there are a lot of times guys aren’t blocking properly but he gets a lot of yards on his own.”
The Patriots’ ability to run the ball — they insisted the Colts had improved, though there was little evidence of that — meant Brady did not need to put the team on his right arm, as he had to do against the Ravens last week.
Brady was 23 of 35 for 226 yards and three touchdowns. When he finally stepped off the field for rookie Jimmy Garoppolo to close out the game, he was loudly cheered by the fans as the in-house system briefly played Aloe Blacc (“I’m the man/I’m the man/I’m the man.”).
Showed on the video board, Brady pumped his fist in recognition of the fans, screaming, “Let’s go!”
The Patriots announced players as eligible and ineligible throughout the game. The eligible player was mostly used when rookie lineman Cameron Fleming came on as an extra blocker, but on third and 1 from the 16 on the Patriots’ opening drive of the second half, Nate Solder checked in as eligible.
Brady faked a handoff to Blount to the right, and Solder ran a screen route to the left. Wide open, the 6-foot-8-inch, 320-pound left tackle rumbled to the end zone, falling over the goal line for his first career touchdown.
The reserved Solder was clearly ecstatic, and was engulfed by his fellow linemen.
“It was amazing,” Solder said. “To be part of a game like that and have a cool play like that, it was really fun. I was told anything can happen, be ready, and I was ready.”
When Solder heard the play in the huddle, he joked that it was a great call.
“We thought it would work,” Brady said. “It was a great time for Josh to call it. Nate made a great catch. Tough conditions out there — I mean, it’s raining for God’s sake, and he runs over two guys to get in there. Maybe we have more tricks up our sleeve.”
Solder was the first Patriots offensive lineman to score a touchdown since Logan Mankins in the 2006 AFC title game, also against the Colts.
The Patriots’ success in all three phases was on full display. The offense was fairly crisp, the defense forced two turnovers, and special teams had an early turnover.
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was just 12 of 33 for 126 yards, with two interceptions. In four games against the Patriots, he has thrown six touchdowns against 10 picks and his completion percentage is just 50.3 percent.
Now the Patriots have two weeks to prepare for the Seahawks, and were already reminding everyone that to become champions they’ll have to beat the reigning champions.
“Those guys are good,” Slater said. “It’s going to be hard. Obviously when you get to this game, it’s never easy. They have some great, great players.’’
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