FOXBORO, Mass., Jan. 16 -- The New England Patriots had heard the predictions of their postseason demise from the naysayers who said they couldn't stop Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and his stable of big-play performers.
But these are the champions, playing at home, and on a snowy, emotional Sunday afternoon, the Patriots kept hope alive for a third Super Bowl title in four years with a methodical 20-3 victory that ended Manning's dream season with yet another nightmare finish.
Corey Dillion flies out of bounds short of the goal line, but his 144 yards on the ground helped the Patriots dominate possession.
(Winslow Townson -- AP)
"I told someone today I felt like there had been more hype over this game than there was for the Super Bowl last year," Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said. "There was a lot of doubt about it, and it ticked us off more and more. It ticked us off that no one gave us respect. I couldn't even sleep last night."
Manning, who passed for an NFL record 49 touchdowns in the regular season, is 0-7 against the Patriots in Foxboro following an afternoon when his receivers betrayed him with numerous dropped passes and his normally solid running game hardly materialized. The player who led the league with a record passer rating of 121.1 this season finished this game at 69.3, a number more often associated this season with his little brother Eli, the New York Giants' rookie quarterback.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady directed an offense that controlled the ball for 37 minutes 43 seconds, yielded no turnovers and got 144 rushing yards from Corey Dillon, the second-highest total in Patriots playoff history. Brady improved to 6-0 against the Colts after he completed 18 of his 27 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown and also scored the game-clinching touchdown on a one-yard sneak with 7 minutes 50 seconds to play.
A year ago, the Patriots beat the Colts here in the AFC title game and went on to win the Super Bowl. New England's latest victory sets up an AFC championship game Sunday in Pittsburgh against a Steelers team that ended the Patriots' 21-game winning streak with a 34-20 victory on Oct. 31.
"No one ever gives us a chance," Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest said. "No one gave us a chance this week. All the people who didn't pick us this week, keep doing it. We want you to do it. We thrive on that."
Leading 6-3 at halftime, Patriots Coach Bill Belichick told his team they would have to play their best 30 minutes of the season in order to win, "and that's what they did," he said. "They played their hearts out. . . . They covered, they rushed, they tackled and they played hard against a very good football team. We've got a lot of really tough guys in that locker room."
The Patriots have won 20 straight games at Gillette Stadium, and snow began falling about 30 minutes before kickoff, a welcome sight for a team that is 8-0 in snow games in New England. Temperature at kickoff was 26 degrees, with the wind chill at 16.
Last year, the Colts complained bitterly following the AFC title game that Patriots defensive backs and linebackers had illegally manhandled their receivers beyond the five-yard zone past the line of scrimmage. In the offseason, the league mandated that game officials call such illegal contact more closely this season.
"What rules do they want to change now?" said Tedy Bruschi, who recovered two fumbles, including a big-time strip of Colts running back Dominic Rhodes late in the second quarter that ended a promising drive.
"Maybe they don't want to play in the snow," Bruschi said. I'm tired of hearing them complain. All I know is we took it away from them today. To hold them to just three points. . . . Just be quiet and play football."
The Patriots prevailed Sunday mostly because their offense became their best defense. Three of their four scoring drives covered 78, 87 and 94 yards and consumed 9:07, 8:16 and 7:24. It must have seemed like an eternity to Manning and his offense, bundled up against the cold on the sideline and unable to get back onto the field as the Patriots marched toward the goal line.
"It was difficult," Colts Coach Tony Dungy said. "We got a little frustrated, guys trying to spin and help out in other places and get out of their gaps. It's just a matter of playing disciplined and attacking and not missing tackles. We had some chances to get them stopped, and they were able to just run the ball. They were over 200 yards today, and you're going to have a tough time winning when that happens."
Manning said afterward he took it very personally "and I feel responsible and accountable and so disappointed I couldn't do my job better to help my team win. But give New England a lot of credit for stopping us and keeping things in front of them. We just didn't make enough plays."
The Patriots began thinking about the Steelers not long after they came out of the showers and began dressing in their packed locker room.
"I think quite naturally, your instincts say revenge," Harrison said of getting another shot at the Steelers, who beat the New York Jets in overtime, 20-17, at home on Saturday. "They're standing in the way of what we ultimately want. It's going to be the hardest-hitting, the most physical game of the year, us and Pittsburgh. We welcome the opportunity."