Denver’s surprising playoff run — and the ungodly amount of media attention it received thanks to Tebowmania — came to a crashing halt Saturday night at the hands of a quarterback who was a holy terror.
The superlative 2011 play of New England’s Tom Brady has gotten short shrift in a season in which Tebow, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees have commanded the spotlight. No more.
Brady bolstered his standing as one of the NFL’s all-time greatest passers with a performance for the ages. He tied a postseason record with six touchdown passes — including five in the first half — as New England rolled to a 45-10 second-round victory over the Broncos at chilly Gillette Stadium.
Tebow didn’t reach six completions until midway through the fourth quarter. With the way both teams were playing, a trademark Tebow Time comeback wouldn’t have happened if an extra hour were added to the game clock.
Tebow finished 9-of-26 passing for 136 yards with a lost fumble. He was sacked five times and limited to 13 yards on five carries. Brady didn’t get sacked while completing 26 of 34 attempts for 363 yards.
There was another difference between the two quarterbacks besides production that Brady pointed out in his postgame news conference.
“I think everyone focused on one player,” said Brady, referring to the pregame media hype surrounding Tebow. “I think all week we were focused on the entire Denver Bronco team.”
As middling as his play was, Tebow shouldn’t be made the scapegoat for this rout. The Patriots clearly learned their lessons from a December matchup against Denver by being far better prepared to stop Tebow’s option plays. Even if Tebow had duplicated the aerial success he enjoyed in last Sunday’s first-round upset of Pittsburgh, the Broncos could not have kept pace.
“Tom is our leader,” Patriots defensive end Vince Wilfork said. “If he plays well, everyone else plays well.”
That script was written when Brady opened the game with eight consecutive completions. He had New England on the scoreboard in less than two minutes on a 7-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Wes Welker.
After a Tebow fumble, forced by blitzing linebacker Rob Ninkovich, Brady quickly maneuvered New England’s hurry-up offense into the end zone again. Brady described tight end Rob Gronkowski’s diving 10-yard grab as “one of the best catches I’ve seen.”
Denver then capitalized by turning one of Brady’s few miscues — an overthrow to Gronkowski that was intercepted — into a touchdown that cut the score to 14-7. The Broncos would never come to within single digits of taking the lead again.
Gronkowski caught two more scores before halftime as part of his 10-reception, 145-yard effort. Brady also took advantage of the safety attention being given to Gronkowski, Welker and other receiving targets who usually thrive in the middle of the field. Wideout Deion Branch shed man-coverage from Broncos cornerback Andre’ Goodman for a 61-yard touchdown catch down the Patriots sideline.
“He was on fire, man,” Gronkowski said of Brady.
A 17-yard strike to tight end Aaron Hernandez matched the NFL’s six-touchdown postseason passing record held by Steve Young and Daryle Lamonica on New England’s first third-quarter possession. Brady could have caused more damage had Patriots head coach Bill Belichick not pulled back with a 35-point lead midway through the fourth quarter.
Brady did stay in the game, which allowed Belichick to call a quick kick on third-and-10 with three minutes remaining to avoid having a traditional punt blocked or returned for a touchdown. On a night when almost everything was going Brady’s way, his special-teams foray did the same. The punt traveled 48 yards before being downed at the Broncos 5-yard line.
“We’ve been practicing that for seven years,” said a smiling Brady, whose last quick kick actually came against Miami in 2003. “I wanted to get it inside the 5, but I needed a (Broncos) penalty to do that.”
As impressive as his statistics were, this victory meant far more to Brady than padding for his Hall of Fame resume. Brady hadn’t won a postseason game since the 2007 AFC Championship Game. Losses in their first playoff game the past two seasons kept the Patriots from adding to a dynasty that began a decade ago when a 24-year-old Brady first entered the starting lineup.
“It’s all about winning,” Brady said when asked about his recent postseason drought.
“You lose a few playoff games, it’s a very bitter way to end the season. It sits on your mind for quite a long time. For us to play the way we did, have a very solid performance in the most important game of the year, is very gratifying.”
New England (14-3) now is one win away from returning to the Super Bowl. The opponent will be determined by Sunday’s other second-round AFC playoff game between Houston and Baltimore.
This much, though, is already clear: Brady won’t be playing second fiddle any more to Joe Flacco, T.J. Yates or any other quarterbacks he may face on his quest for a fourth championship ring.