FOXBORO, Mass. -- Before Saturday night, New England hadn't won a playoff game in four years. From the looks of what the Patriots put on display against Denver, they're not going to have to wait four years before winning another.
Playing the most dominant playoff game in franchise history -- which is saying something, considering this was their 18th postseason win -- New England bolted to a 35-point lead after 35 minutes and obliterated the outmanned Broncos 45-10 at Gillette Stadium in an AFC divisional playoff game. The victory sets up the Patriots' sixth AFC Championship Game appearance in Bill Belichick's 12 years as coach. New England, 4-1 in the previous five title games, will host the winner of Sunday's Houston-Baltimore game next Sunday here.
After watching Tom Brady riddle the Broncos for a league-playoff-record-tying six touchdown passes, and after watching the embattled Patriot defense embarrass Tim Tebow and the Broncos, you've got to think New England's got as good a chance to win the Super Bowl this year as in 2007. That's the year the Patriots went 16-0, then advanced to the Super Bowl with 11- and nine-point playoff wins. New England went 13-3 and earned the AFC's top seed this year as in 2007 -- but the Patriots are playing better late in this season than they were in the 16-0 year.
"Tom was on fire, man,'' said tight end Rob Gronkowski, who caught three touchdown passes on a 10-reception, 145-yard night. "That's just how he is. And obviously, you can't start a game any better than we did.''
It took only nine minutes to burst any hopes Denver had. That's how long it took Brady to go 80 yards in five plays, capped by a lasered seven-yard TD pass to Wes Welker, and a seven-play, 59-yard drive ending in a 10-yard TD pass to Gronkowski. The Patriots scored six touchdowns in the first nine possessions, putting America to sleep early in the third quarter.
Brady has never been better in the postseason, setting a franchise record with 363 passing yards and the six touchdowns. He did it by running an uptempo offense that the Broncos never got used to. "We knew they were going to up-tempo it,'' said cornerback Champ Bailey. "If you're not ready to punch him in the mouth, he's going to eat you up all night.''
The storyline all week was Tebow, and Time, GQ, The New Yorker and People had correspondents on hand to document the most unlikely story of the NFL season -- Tebow taking over the 1-4 Broncos in October and driving them to a division title and a playoff upset of Pittsburgh. At the team hotel Saturday morning, Denver coach John Fox said his message to the Broncos, heavy underdogs to New England, was simple this week: "There's a Cinderella in the NFL playoffs every year. Why not us? Why not now?''
But the only thing this night had in common with the eight glorious games that ended in Tebow victories was a purple-shirted Tebow spending time with a 20-year-old brain-injury victim, Zach McLeod of suburban Boston, and McLeod's family. That's a tradition that Tebow has established this season, hosting a person with some malady at all of his games, spending a few minutes before and after the games with them. That was about the only thing that brought a smile to the face of anyone associated with the Broncos on a very bad football night. For the game, Tebow was 9 of 26 with three drops, for 136 yards and no interceptions or touchdowns. He was sacked five times and harassed all night.
"He's our guy,'' said safety Rahim Moore. "I believe in him and would like him to be our quarterback.''
The likelihood is Tebow will enter the offseason with the starting job, and club president John Elway will bring in a quarterback to eventually challenge him.
The advantage for Tebow will be that he'll have a normal offseason -- with minicamps and practices with Denver's first offensive units that he hasn't had in either of his two offseasons as a pro. The question will be whether offensive coordinator Mike McCoy will be able to improve Tebow's accuracy to the point where he can be an effective NFL starter. This game showed the huge gap between Tebow and Brady.
Then again, this game showed a gap between Brady and almost every quarterback in football. If he plays like this, with his tight ends and Welker such big weapons, the Patriots are going to be a very tough out in the conference title game and beyond.