The Packers, Broncos and Eagles all scored more points than New England did during the regular season. When they are clicking, though, the Patriots may have the most difficult offense to game plan against in the entire league. An overmatched Indianapolis defense was absolutely twisted into knots Sunday, as the Patriots cruised to a 45-7 victory in the AFC championship.
The offensive beatdown was so thorough that by the time Rob Gronkowski made his first reception, midway through the third quarter, New England already led 24-7 and offensive tackle Nate Solder had a touchdown grab. Neither Gronkowski nor Brandon LaFell hauled in a single catch in the first half, yet the Patriots carried a comfortable 10-point lead to the break.
As was the case when these two teams played earlier this season and in the 2013 playoffs, the Colts were unable to slow down New England's run game, thus allowing Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to keep their entire playbook at the ready.
Super Bowl XLIX now will showcase the NFL's top-rated defense against this dynamic, unpredictable New England offense. A closer look at how the Patriots rolled to victory:
1. LeGarrette Blount ... again: Much was made of the Patriots' unusual four-lineman formation last week vs. Baltimore. While that setup saw the light of day again Sunday, Indianapolis' real issue was how little it could do up front when New England used its traditional five-man or oversized six-man line.
Thanks to Gronkowski's blocking prowess, New England already has an edge at the line in just about any alignment. Add in that extra tackle as the Patriots did early on with Cameron Fleming, plus the 250-pound beef from running back LeGarrette Blount, and opposing defenses have their hands full simply matching up in the box. When too many defenders are stacked in tight, Tom Brady will go to work. But the alternative option of playing light can be just as troublesome.
When the Colts tossed their nickel package out there, the Patriots had no problem moving the chains on Blount's back. The versatile offense pressured the Colts further by stretching the field horizontally with short passes, forcing the inside linebacking tandem of Jerrell Freeman and D'Qwell Jackson into some uncomfortable spots.
Blount turned every opening he found into positive yards, on multiple occasions cutting back against the grain to foil overpursuing Indianapolis defenders ... just as he did in slicing through the Colts last playoff season.
2. Plenty of Patriots defense, too: Earlier in the week, Belichick said that Andrew Luck is "like a sixth receiver you have to cover. He can run, but again, if he extends the play then he has the ability to create big plays."
Of top priority for New England, then, was not to thwart the Colts' revived, Boom Herron-led run game, but to make sure that Luck stayed pinned in the pocket. They accomplished their aim with an aggressive, cornerback-heavy approach that left Devin McCourty by his lonesome in the deep secondary.
The real key to the entire attack, however, came up front. Patriots' DE Rob Ninkovich keyed a consistent pass rush and made sure that Luck was unable to escape for any of his patented on-the-move plays. At times, it felt like there was more than one Ninkovich on the field -- he was that omnipresent against the run and pass.
3. Another wake-up call for the Colts: Luck provides Indianapolis with a clear leg-up on the majority of teams. But, for the second straight postseason, it's clear that GM Ryan Grigson has work to do if he wants this team to make it to the top. Luck, Hilton and Vontae Davis are stars at their positions. Grigson could pick about any other spot on the field and see room for improvement in the coming months.
That's three times in about a year now that New England has reminded the Colts of how important it is to be strong in the trenches. Protecting Luck remains an issue, one that's exacerbated on days like Sunday when the Colts' defense cannot get off the field.
Fixing the problems along the offensive and defensive lines, and at the linebacker position, are far easier said than done. Even with those problem areas, Indianapolis has established itself as the team to beat in the AFC South and a legitimate contender within the conference.
Taking that next step is always the hardest challenge for an up-and-coming team. Though the Colts were a mere win away from the Super Bowl, New England showed them how much more ground they must cover.