Patriots rout Broncos 45-10 in AFC playoff rout
Published: Saturday, January 14, 2012 at 8:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 15, 2012 at 12:10 a.m.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady silenced Tebowmania with a record-shattering performance.
Brady threw six touchdown passes, five in the first half, putting the New England Patriots into the AFC championship game after roughing up Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos 45-10 Saturday night.
The Patriots (14-3), winners of nine straight games, will host either Baltimore or Houston next Sunday for a spot in the Super Bowl. Saturday night's romp snapped a three-game postseason losing streak, two of those at Gillette Stadium, and lifted the Patriots to the verge of their fifth Super Bowl appearance in 11 seasons. They've won three of those.
“We came in and started fast and it was a big win for us,” said Brady, who even got off a 48-yard punt on third down.
From the first snap, this was a mismatch. The Patriots were not going to make the same mistakes the Steelers made against this team.
A nation transfixed by Tebow's play, if not his principles, tuned in Saturday to see if he had more heroics in store for Brady and company. He had nothing left as the Patriots made this must-see TV only for those who live in New England.
With New England up 42-7, the fans began their derisive Teeee-bow chants. On the next play, the Broncos quarterback was sacked for an 11-yard loss — one of five sacks for New England's 31st-ranked defense.
“We went out and played very hard and good things happened,” defensive tackle Vince Wilford said. “A great team win.”
And so ended one of the season's most exciting story lines — one that began when Denver was 1-4 and made Tebow a starter. The one-time third-stringer promptly won six in a row and seven of eight, with a string of stunning comebacks. That surge ended with a 41-23 home loss to New England, and the Broncos dropped their next two, backing into the AFC West title.
But they rebounded nicely in their first playoff game since the 2005 season with the longest overtime touchdown in playoff history, an 80-yard catch and run by Demaryius Thomas against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Like everyone else on the Broncos' offense, Thomas was invisible against the Patriots.
Denver couldn't cover or tackle All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who tied a postseason mark with three touchdown catches, all in the opening half. Brady toyed with the Broncos (9-9), throwing more TD passes than Tebow had completions (three) in the first 30 minutes.
“We were playing complementary football, and it was awesome,” Gronkowski said.
Brady's sixth TD was to his other tight end, Aaron Hernandez, as the quarterback tied Steve Young and Daryle Lamonica for the most in a postseason game.
The two-time league MVP threw for 5,235 yards during the season, second in NFL history to Drew Brees' 5,476 in 2011. He looked ready to get that much against the Broncos as he moved to third place in career touchdown passes in the playoffs with 36, trailing Joe Montana (45) and Brett Favre (44).
Brady was 26 for 34 for 363 yards and Gronkowski made 10 catches for 145 yards as the Patriots gained 509 yards in all. In stark contrast, Tebow was 9 for 26 for 136 yards.
The Broncos won the coin toss and elected to defer. Bad idea: They never were in the game after that.
Brady hit his first eight passes for 79 yards and two touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, who's leaving to become Penn State's coach once the Patriots are done, threw in a wrinkle by using Hernandez as a running back. On one of those plays, Hernandez broke free down the left sideline for a 43-yard gain, the team's longest run this season.
But with the ball in his hands and a 14-0 lead, Brady momentarily stumbled. His throw over the middle for Julian Edelman sailed directly to safety Quinton Carter, whose weaving return set up Denver at the New England 24.
Willis McGahee scored on a 5-yard run.
Carter left the game moments later with a neck injury; Denver was already without strong safety Brian Dawkins with a neck problem. And it's secondary had no chance without them.
Yes, Brady had cooled off in the 24-degree temperature (wind chill of 12), but only for a while.
Using the no-huddle, and aided by an effective running game, Brady hit three passes for 31 yards, with Gronkowski getting free over the middle this time for the 12-yard score. Several times, and not just on his romps into the end zone, Gronkowski simply shoved aside would-be tacklers to tack on yards after catches.
Brady's TDs covered 10, 12 and 19 yards to Gronkowski, 7 to Wes Welker, 61 to Deion Branch and 17 yards to Hernandez early in the third quarter. Coach Bill Belichick wasn't about to back off at that point, but the Patriots stalled inside the Denver 5 early in the four period and Stephen Gostkowski made a 21-yard field goal to conclude New England's scoring.
Hernandez left in the fourth quarter with a head injury.
“He's feeling great,” Gronkowski said. “Hernandez is a beast and I love playing with him and everything.”
NFC Divisional playoffs -- 49ers 36, Saints 32
SAN FRANCISCO — What a way to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of "The Catch."
Joe Montana to Dwight Clark then.
Alex Smith to Vernon Davis now.
Smith completed a 14-yard touchdown pass to Davis with 9 seconds left just after Drew Brees had put the high-powered Saints ahead, and resurgent San Francisco capitalized on five New Orleans turnovers for a thrilling 36-32 playoff victory Saturday.
"This is huge for us," Davis said. "It's history, legendary, anything you can describe."
Smith ran for a 28-yard TD with 2:11 left and threw another scoring pass to Davis in the first quarter. Coach Jim Harbaugh's NFC West champions (14-3) proved that a hard-hitting, stingy defense can still win in the modern, wide-open NFL by holding off one of league's most dynamic offenses.
Brees completed a 66-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham with 1:37 left and the Saints seemed poised to rally from an early 17-point deficit when Smith and Davis delivered once more. It was a wild back-and-forth finish featuring an impressive passing duel over the waning moments.
Their highlight show came in the opposite end zone from where Clark caught a stretched-out 6-yard pass from Montana on Jan. 10, 1982. Saturday's game-winner by a leaping Davis — who plowed over a defender as he landed — came in the same end zone where Steve Young hit Terrell Owens for a winning TD with 3 seconds left in a 30-27 wild-card win over the Packers in the 1999 playoffs. T.O.'s grab became known as "The Catch II."
How about this one?
"You've got to call it the grab," Davis said of his play. "We were down. I had to make it happen to take my teammates where we want to go."
San Francisco triumphed in its first playoff game in nine years and will move on to face the New York Giants or defending champion Green Bay Packers, who play Sunday. A win by the Giants would give the 49ers the home field.
The 49ers pulled off another last-second win in a season full of them — and on a day former coach George Seifert served as honorary captain for the coin toss. San Francisco came from behind for five victories during the regular season, four on the road.
Davis, who wept on the sideline afterward days after saying he was overwhelmed early by Harbaugh's thick playbook, finished with seven catches for 180 yards. It was the most yards receiving by a tight end in a playoff game. He averaged 25.7 yards per catch.
Brees came up big down the stretch just as he did throughout a record-setting season, also hitting Darren Sproles for a 44-yard TD with 4:02 remaining — one of Sproles' 15 catches for 119 yards.
"It stings right now because of the expectation level that we had coming into this tournament and understanding that if we win here we're into the NFC championship game and anything can happen," Brees said. "That's tough. Tough to swallow at this point."
The 49ers also showed that defense can still dominate in the days of big passers like Brees.
With Donte Whitner bringing the bruising hits and Dashon Goldson, Patrick Willis and their defensive mates pressuring Brees and forcing turnovers from every angle, surprising San Francisco is a win away from returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since capturing the proud franchise's fifth championship after the 1994 season.
Brees, whose team was coming off consecutive 600-yard games, completed 40 of 63 passes for 462 yards and four touchdowns and was sacked three times. He also threw two interceptions, his first in the postseason in five years, and New Orleans (14-4) fell short again in its quest to get back to the Super Bowl after winning it all two years ago. The Saints are still searching for the first postseason road victory in franchise history after falling to 0-5.
"Kind of an unbelievable game the way it went back and forth," New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. "It's obviously a difficult game to lose."
How far these 49ers have come since that 24-3 trouncing they took back in August at the Superdome in the teams' exhibition opener. Now, Harbaugh's "Who's got it better than us? No-body!" group is drawing comparisons to the good ol' days of Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott and Steve Young. And of course, Dwight Clark, who came through with "The Catch" to beat Dallas in the NFC title game on Jan. 10, 1982.
All-Pro David Akers, the Niners' most experienced playoff veteran whose 44 field goals set a single-season record, kicked three more when it mattered most — from 25, 41 and 37 yards.
The underdog 49ers made the big plays on both sides of the ball and on special teams.
"Guys were so confident, as long as we had time we had a shot," Smith said.
They also had a towel-waving sellout crowd of 69,732 behind them at Candlestick Park on a beautiful sunny winter day in the Bay Area. It was 62 degrees at kickoff.
Who Dat? It's the Saints headed home to the Big Easy empty-handed.
A year ago, New Orleans came out West and suffered a stunning loss to the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks in the NFC wild-card round.
The Saints had lost five fumbles all season, then gave three away Saturday against San Francisco's opportunistic defense that pressured all day.
Harbaugh's theme "don't overcook it," rang true as the 49ers relied on what got them here — perhaps the league's best defense and special teams.
Brees drove the Saints close to the goal line on their opening drive but Pierre Thomas lost that fumble and was lost for the game to a head injury after being hit by Whitner. Two other turnovers came on special teams.
Smith, the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick booed so often his first six seasons, hit Davis on a 49-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and then Michael Crabtree on a 4-yard TD strike as the 49ers jumped out to a quick 17-0 lead. He finished 24 for 42 for 299 yards with a 103.2 passer rating.
"It shows he's becoming an elite quarterback. I'm glad the world could see what he did today," Willis said.
Smith and his offense were determined to make their mark on these playoffs after being overlooked all season, and showed a little flair of their own. Davis dunked the football over the goal post after his score to make the Niners' most significant game on the NFL's big stage since rallying to stun the New York Giants in January 2003.
Brees threw two first-half interceptions and had his NFL-record streak of 226 postseason passes without an interception snapped on Goldson's pick in the opening quarter. Brees' streak dated to the NFC championship game against Chicago five years ago.
But he hit a well-guarded Graham for a leaping 14-yard touchdown catch at the 9:32 mark of the second quarter, then had a 25-yard TD completion to Marques Colston to send the Saints into halftime trailing only 17-14.
Any momentum New Orleans gained was hurt when Colin Jones forced return man Sproles to fumble after the 49ers punted on their first possession of the second half. That set up Akers' second field goal of the day.
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