Extra Points

Patriots Report Card: AFC Championship vs. Indianapolis

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Barry Chin/The Boston Globe

For the second time in four years and sixth time in 15, the New England Patriots are going to the ‘ship. The Pats obliterated the overmatched and overwhelmed Indianapolis Colts 45-7 for the AFC championship, the 20th playoff win for Tom Brady and 21st for Bill Belichick. The Colts were doomed pretty much from when they got off the bus, but hung around until halftime before the Pats blew them out in the third quarter with three touchdowns in just under eight minutes. Brady threw for 22 yards and three TD passes to reassume the all-time lead in postseason passing and the defense throttled the good but not yet great Andrew Luck, who put up hideous numbers and is now 0-4 in his young career against the Patriots.

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The Patriots now have just one more test to pass and it comes a week from Sunday in Glendale, Arizona against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. So with that, let’s get into their dominating performance against the Colts with this week’s report card.

OVERALL GRADE: A

OFFENSE – The Colts have two good corners — one of them very good — and a very solid, veteran linebacker and that’s about it as far as possible game-changers on their defense. And that’s why the Patriots have been able to grab them by the throat and fling them around the room not once, but twice this season. The Pats did pretty much the same exact thing as they did in Week 11 from a game plan standpoint, the Colts could not adjust even slightly and the rout was on.

If not for Brady’s weekly force to Gronkowski that gets picked off, the game would have been over long before the midpoint of the third quarter. The Pats toyed with Indy, going from a game in which Brady passed 50 times and didn’t hand the ball off once after halftime to running the ball right down the defense’s gullet in the span of a week. And that’s another huge reason why this Pats’ team is a good a bet to win a title as any from the past few seasons. Their ability to truly be an opponent specific offense, to throw so much versatility and multiple threats at whoever they face, is amazing.

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The star of this one, of course, was LeGarrette Blount, doing the same thing he did to the poor Colts last January and Jonas Gray did in November. Blount steamrolled the Colts for 148 yards on a team playoff record 30 attempts and scored three TDs, running around, over and through anyone in a white uniform who got in his way. There were multiple occasions on which he showed moves that most backs his size couldn’t make in their dreams, sprinkling the odd cutback, spin and hurdle with plenty of spot-on impressions of his opposite number come Super Bowl Sunday, Marshawn Lynch.

When Blount wasn’t going Beast Mode, Brady was busy throwing TD passes to the likes of James Develin and (gasp!) Nate Solder, while usual suspects Brandon LaFell and Gronk combined for just seven catches and 56 yards, none of the above in the first half. And Julian Edelman, who left for a brief stretch with hip issues, put on a clinic with his nine catches and 98 yards. Edelman was a first down machine and also showed off how great he is both at making yards after the catch and adjusting to throws in the air.

The Pats will likely wind up going as far as their line, which was outstanding in this game, can take them. The Seahawks are just a whisker better than the Colts up front on defense if you haven’t noticed, but they can be run on (Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy nods ruefully). And the Patriots have shown enough just in the past two weeks from their four-man lines to their power running game to their double passes to Danny Amendola coming up huge to Gronk and LaFell being mostly afterthoughts that old pal Pete Carroll and company will have plenty to sort out before the big game.

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One thing is for sure: there’s no telling what the Patriots will dial up on offense in the Super Bowl. No one has a clue. And that is ultimately their greatest weapon. GRADE: A

DEFENSE – The bottom line when assessing the defense is that it was two penalties and one of the more otherworldly throws/catches you will ever see from pitching a shutout. The Colts’ 10-play, 93-yard march was only made possible by that throw and catch and third down penalties on Vince Wilfork and Brandon Browner that kept the drive going. Other than that and a 12-play drive that resulted in a badly missed field goal by Adam Vinatieri, the Colts never held the ball for more than six plays at a time and they managed that number just once. The Pats put on a clinic defensively. It was complete and total domination.

Consider some of the other numbers. Remove that 36-yard grab by T.Y. Hilton and he and fellow receivers Reggie Wayne, Donte Moncrief and Hakeem Nicks had one catch for 15 yards. Donuts for Moncrief and the completely washed up Wayne along with a zero from Hilton both before and after catching that sideline prayer from Luck and that’s it. Add it all up along with a couple of brutal drops and some dinky, little completions to tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen and you get a final line featuring 3.8 yards per pass attempt (worse than it sounds) and a passer rating of, ahem, 23 for Luck.

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No one played poorly for the Pats on defense but plenty of guys played great starting with Rob Ninkovich. Two passes defensed, two hits on Luck and a mind-boggling 10 hurries is a good month for some linebackers but Ninkovich, who deftly moved from pass rusher to spying Luck to run stopper without even the slightest hitch. Jamie Collins continues to look like The Matrix of this defense, showing more ridiculous athleticism on an interception return and his typical nastiness both as a pass rusher and making plays in space. Kyle Arrington erased Hilton with some occasional safety help and was a force at his best, most comfortable position in the slot. And Darrelle Revis came back from an early, Talib-esque injury scare to make a back breaking pick.

There’s more, of course. Again, everyone had a great game for the Pats’ defense which again proved to be far too much for the Colts and Luck to handle. If you want to nitpick, you could lament the limited pass rush and zero sacks although even that’s a tough one considering how frequently Ninkovich and Chandler Jones were in the backfield millimeters away from getting their paws on Luck. At any rate, this was a command performance from the Patriots on this side of the ball. If they can get another game like this one out of the D in Glendale, the odds of that fourth title coming back to Foxborough increase exponentially. GRADE: A+

SPECIAL TEAMS/COACHING – Good on the special teams as usual with extra ups to Brandon Bolden, who sprung Edelman for a 45-yard punt return with a block so ferocious, it shook my TV screen. Imagine getting broadsided by a truck and you can probably at least begin to approximate how Colts linebacker Andy Studebaker felt (and probably still feels) after that hit. And credit the referees for holding their flags too. The hit was 100 percent legal but the violence of it usually brings about a reactionary call from the nearest ref. Good on them for seeing the play for what it really was.

And now the coaching, which once again may as well have been a master class in football. Colts coach Chuck Pagano is a great guy and his assistants are talented but like his quarterback, he’s just not ready. Colt after Colt talked about how the Pats did pretty much the same things they did back in Week 11 followed by shrugs and head scratches and uncomfortable silences when subsequently asked why they didn’t adjust. Maybe Pagano was so floored that the Pats simply repeated themselves instead of throwing some wrinkles into the game plan that he was rendered immobile and catatonic for three hours. Maybe he has an aversion to being out in the rain. Maybe he was just outclassed. Whatever the reason, Belichick, Josh McDaniels, Matt Patricia and staff didn’t just run circles around Pagano and his underlings, they danced.

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Truckloads of combinations and different assignments from one snap to the next on defense (including four corners and one safety in the defensive backfield on multiple snaps) and perfectly conceived and executed play calling on offense with yet another perfectly timed trick play dusted off on offense and it’s on to Seattle, on to Glendale, on to the Super Bowl, whatever variation on that one-liner you prefer.

And while we’re here, as the rest of the world wrings its collective hands over deflated footballs or whatever silliness is trendy this week, just look around the rest of the league and try to say with a straight face that there is any team in a better situation than the Patriots. There are people like McCarthy doing everything under the sun to give the NFC Championship away even when the opponent won’t take it for 55 minutes. There are teams rolling in retreads/also-rans like Jack Del Rio and Gary Kubiak and John Fox and even Rex Ryan (who is actually bringing his same QB coach from the Jets with him to Buffalo!) thinking that’s what it takes to get to the next level.

And then you have Belichick, now the winningest playoff coach in NFL history, going to yet another Super Bowl. Drink it in, Pats fans. It will never get any better than these past 15 years. GRADES: SPECIAL TEAMS: A, COACHING: A+

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