Patriots Head to Houston as AFC Champions

New England drubs the Indianapolis Colts with dominating defense.

In football weather seemingly out of a classic movie, the New England Patriots fielded a defensive game plan for the ages on Sunday. Swirling snow added to the electric playoff atmosphere in Foxboro and the Patriots players did not disappoint the roaring fans, delivering the franchise's fourth AFC Championship and a trip to Super Bowl XXXVIII.

For the second week in a row, the Patriots beat a league MVP. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning came into the game on one of the hottest playoff streaks of any player in NFL history, completing 44-of-56 passes for 681 yards with eight touchdowns and zero interceptions for an offense that had yet to punt in its two playoff games. Coming into New England, the Colts had scored on 75% of their postseason possessions.

Facing the Colts' seemingly unstoppable offense, the Patriots came up with a strategy that made them an immovable object. The New England defense determined the outcome by dominating the opposing receivers. Their strategy from the outset was to out-physical the Colts, taking advantage of Indianapolis' finesse approach to offense. As Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said of their defensive game plan, "We got our hands on them and got their jerseys dirty."

Along with messy laundry, the Patriots gave the Colts fits with a stunningly opportunistic defense that recorded five take-aways including four interceptions of Manning. After he put up a literally perfect passer rating of 158.3 two weeks ago in his first-ever playoff win, the Patriots held Manning to a rating of 35.5, the second-worst of his six-year career.

Ultimately, the Patriots' offense out-shined the Colts'. In fact, New England quite possibly could have blown-out the Colts, but the Patriots scored just a single touchdown despite seven trips inside the Indianapolis 20-yard line (including four drives that ended inside the 10). They instead settled for field goals and got five of them, providing more than enough points to beat a Colts offense held in check throughout the game. But had even one of their field goals been a touchdown instead, the margin of victory would have been much more lopsided in the Patriots' favor.

Despite the stalled drives, New England ran and passed with aggressiveness. On their first drive of the game, the Patriots successfully converted a fourth-and-one from their own 44-yard line, indicating the attacking style they would show throughout the contest. The Patriots ended the game with nearly 350 total yards.

In victory the Patriots became the first AFC franchise to advance to three Super Bowls since the creation of the salary cap (and the leveling of talent around the league) over a decade ago. They will meet the NFC Champion Carolina Panthers in Houston on February 1st.

Here is a look at some of the key role players from the Patriots' win:

Adam Vinatieri

Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri tied an NFL playoff record on Sunday by hitting five field goals. Although one of his kicks barely snuck through after caroming off the left upright, Vinatieri was five-for-five for a perfect night. For his career, Vinatieri has made nearly 81% of his field goal attempts, ranking him the eighth most accurate kicker in league history. More importantly, he has the calmness and consistency to make the important kicks in difficult conditions, nailing 15 game-winning kicks in his career.

His longest against the Colts was from just 34 yards, a kick easily within his range after he drilled the game-winner last week from 46 yards. His other kicks were closer in (from 31, 25, 27, and 21 yards), reflecting both the success and failure of the Patriots offense to move the ball against the Colts but ultimately stall in the red zone. Having Vinatieri on the team, however, ensures that New England will almost always come away with points.

Vinatieri's first kick was made possible by receiver Troy Brown. Not because Brown made a big catch, but because he prevented the defender from making one. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady tried to force a ball into Brown on third-and-seven from the Indianapolis 13-yard line. Colts defensive back Nick Harper stepped in front of it and had an easy interception, until Brown reached over him and knocked the ball out of Harper's hands. The Patriots retained possession and Vinatieri's subsequent kick gave the Patriots a 10-0 lead that they never relinquished.

Damon Huard

When the Patriots won the AFC Championship game following the 1996 season, then-head coach Bill Parcells made an interesting statement by thanking a player who had not participated in the team's win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. "Sam Gash," Parcells said, holding aloft the Lamar Hunt trophy, "part of this is for you." Gash, a bruising fullback, was out of action and watching the game from a hospital bed, but his attitude and play had helped the Patriots achieve the success they did that year.

Current Patriots head coach Bill Belichick made a similar statement this Sunday after his team defeated the Colts to advance to the Super Bowl. Backup quarterback Damon Huard received the coach's praise for helping to prepare the team, particularly the Patriots defense, for what it would face from the Colts. Huard ran the "scout team," the players tasked with simulating the Colts' offense in practice to give the Patriots defenders an idea of what they would face. Huard was so effective that the defenders realized the urgency that they would have to play with to defeat Manning. Huard had as big an effect on the outcome of the game as any player who didn't play a down could have had.

Russ Hochstein

The Patriots lost their top offensive lineman last week. Damien Woody, a Pro Bowl player at center who performed at a very high level this season as the team's left guard, suffered a torn MCL in his left knee and was placed on injured reserve on Saturday. While the Patriots used the roster spot created by this move to re-sign wide receiver J.J. Stokes, who had been with the team briefly in late November, they looked to a backup already on the roster to take Woody's spot on the line.

That player was Russ Hochstein. And the best thing that can be said about Hochstein is the same high praise due any good offensive lineman: that he wasn't noticed. If a lineman stands out it is usually because he is being beaten or making mistakes, but Hochstein quietly had a very good game.

In fact, he was part of an offensive line that helped pile-up 112 yards of rushing offense and allowed no sacks.

Hochstein was not the only offensive line replacement. Right tackle Tom Ashworth was briefly knocked silly in the third quarter and backup Brandon Gorin came in for him. Ashworth returned but when asked after the game if he had had the wind knocked out of him, Ashworth said, "Yeah, and a few marbles too."

Antowain Smith

Of the Patriots' 112 rushing yards, lead running back Antowain Smith had 100. It was his fourth career 100-yard rushing game against the Colts. His pounding running style helped the Patriots win the battle for the clock with more than 32 minutes in time of possession.

Smith has been getting better and better as the season has grown older: he only had one game with more than 56 yards between Week 1 and Week 13, and then had at least 60 in every game except for one thereafter. He ground out the tough yards against Tennessee, the league's best run defense, and showed again on Sunday that his ability to power over or carry defenders for the extra yards is still a necessary part of the Patriots' overall offensive production.

Much-maligned tight end Daniel Graham deserves some credit for Smith's performance. Along with the offensive line, Graham had some terrific blocks and seals at the line of scrimmage and downfield to help spring Smith for big gains, including back-to-back runs of 35 and 14 yards late in the third quarter. Graham is often excoriated for his inability to make clutch catches (including two drops inside the Tennessee 5-yard line last week that probably would have sealed that game), but his blocking has become exceptional.

Jarvis Green

On Sunday, Coach Belichick decided to deactivate Dan Klecko, who has been a jack-of-all-trades for the Patriots, playing special teams, fullback, defensive tackle and pass rushing specialist. Klecko had 18 tackles this season, plus 1-1/2 sacks and a fumble recovery.

In his place, the Patriots played Jarvis Green at end and tackle in the defensive line rotation. The decision to go with Green over Klecko was seemingly an odd one: Green had one fewer tackle than Klecko this season, although he did have two sacks. Green was tried as the team's starting nose tackle this season until that experiment was deemed a failure and the trade was made for massive tackle Ted Washington (perhaps the best value ever for a 4th-round draft pick). Green was a little-used backup throughout most of the season.

But against the Colts, he was a star. He had three of the team's four sacks of Manning, a player who had only been sacked a paltry 18 times during the regular season and just once in the previous two playoff games they played before the AFC Championship game.

Green's first sack, in the second quarter, led to Indianapolis having to attempt its first punt of the post-season, but that aborted attempt instead resulted in a safety and two points for New England.

His two other sacks came in the fourth quarter as the Patriots fought to hold off a late charge by the Colts. And even when he wasn't taking down the quarterback, he was part of a game plan that very effectively flushed Manning out of the pocket and created the "happy feet" typical of a quarterback out of his rhythm and resulted in the Colts' ineffective offensive outing.

Green was dominant at times, powering through the Colts' very talented center, Jeff Saturday. Green, a fourth round draft pick in 2002, has come a long way in his two years in the league, seemingly a product of his own hard work and the fact that the Patriots coaching staff just seems to have a knack for positioning their players to maximize their talents. They did that on Sunday and Green produced for them.

Ty Law

Little more needs to be said about Patriots All-Pro cornerback Ty Law but his performance on Sunday was of such sterling quality that there are hardly enough words to do him justice.

Clearly one of the very best at his position in the league, Law put on a clinic on Sunday snaring three interceptions. Heading into the game, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning had been the most prolific quarterback of the playoffs, throwing eight touchdowns and no interceptions in two games. But on Sunday, Law caught as many passes from Manning as the Colts' top receiver, Marvin Harrison. Law blanketed Harrison throughout the game, physically dominating him.

Law also contributed to the design of the game plan: he and safety Rodney Harrison toyed with the idea of switching off coverage of Marvin Harrison throughout the week of practice. Coach Belichick raised an eyebrow and said "that looks interesting" and went with it in the game.

Thanks to an early lead (the Patriots scored a touchdown on their opening drive for the fifth straight game), the Colts were not running the ball effectively, allowing Law and Rodney Harrison to put into effect their plan for shutting down Marvin Harrison. It worked and Law proceeded to dismantle Manning's game. To his credit, he gave praise to the other 10 players on defense who made his individual performance possible, a significant peak into the psyche of a team with a championship-caliber mentality.

As for the Super Bowl to come, we will have many reports up-coming. But first, this:

Jermaine Wiggins

Remember tight end Jermaine Wiggins? The kid from South Boston who lived the dream by playing in the Super Bowl with his home town New England Patriots and beating the St. Louis Rams? Well, he's back in the Super Bowl, only this time with the Carolina Panthers. He only had eight catches and one touchdown this year, but that's about as much as he can be expected to produce (he only had 14 catches and four touchdowns for the 2001 Patriots). But he is all heart and, as the Patriots know, a good player to have on the roster. His experience can only help the Panthers deal with the pressures of their franchise's first-ever Super Bowl.

As for the game, early forecasts indicate that Houston expects to have temperatures in the high 60s. The stadium features a retractable roof so inclement weather will not be an issue. The Patriots played the Texans at the Houston stadium (Reliant) earlier this season, so the Patriots should have a comfort level with the field and surroundings.

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