Brady’s performance against the Texans, in which he completed 25 of 40 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns, assured that the Patriots will host the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship game for the second year in a row. It kept alive the pursuit of Brady and Coach Bill Belichick, who now fit into the New England landscape like a lobster roll and a cup of chowder, for a fourth Super Bowl title.
And it put the remaining three contenders for that title on notice: Brady, and this offense, might fade into the background during the season while the league concentrates on Peyton Manning or Robert Griffin III. But it is January, and that offense is still playing, and it is lethal.
This version, the 10th Brady and Belichick have brought to the playoffs, showed its versatility Sunday. Running back Danny Woodhead suffered a hand injury on New England’s first possession. Woodhead’s snaps, then, went to second-year back Shane Vereen. Vereen’s contributions: 124 total yards and three touchdowns, including the 33-yard pass that made it 38-13 early in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots’ offense missed, at various points this year, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. It still does not have a household name of a running back. Pro Bowl linemen have retired. And their most prolific wide receiver stands 5-feet-9 and was released by San Diego and held in such low regard by Miami that the Dolphins traded him, within their own division, to New England.
Yet these Patriots came into these playoffs supremely confident. They set an NFL record by recording 444 first downs. They led the league in scoring with 557 points, the third-highest total in history. They did that because they were the best team in the league on third down, and they were remarkably efficient in the red zone, with 67 touchdowns. Only three teams have ever had more. They averaged 427.9 yards per game; nine teams weren’t within 100 yards of that.
So when Brady started pushing buttons and pulling levers Sunday, the Gillette Stadium crowd had every right to believe it was in for another playoff treat. There is no gear into which Brady can’t slide this offense, which racked up 457 yards on Sunday. He can huddle up his guys and take his time. He can sprint to the line of scrimmage and not allow the opponent to breathe.