FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Since winning their third Super Bowl in 2004, the Patriots have tried to get that elusive fourth ring with offense while rebuilding on defense. The runs were all Tom Brady productions, whether the quarterback was setting records with receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker, or breaking out two formidable tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Maybe going back to the old formula will do the trick.
Brady's the only remaining holdover from all three titles, and the defense isn't of the same caliber, but the Patriots have a vintage look heading into next Sunday's AFC Championship -- against either the Denver Broncos or San Diego Chargers -- after they put away the not-quite-ready for primetime Colts and quarterback Andrew Luck 43-22 on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium.
"The way our defense is getting the ball for us, and really what we've done the last three or four weeks, the running game has just been awesome, it's helped everything out," said Brady, who didn't have a touchdown pass for the third time in 26 playoff games -- all victories. "Hopefully, we keep doing it. Hopefully we can do it next week, too."
When the Patriots were winning those three Super Bowl titles, Brady and his clutch play was a key component, but the teams were built on a physical running game, and a tactically stellar defense. New England was at its best when it was capable of exploiting weaknesses, and shutting down an opponent's strengths on both sides of the ball.
The Patriots did all that against the Colts.
In the mold of Super Bowl-winning bruising backs in Antowain Smith (2001 and '03) and clock-killing Corey Dillon ('04), LeGarrette Blount and his 6-foot-1, 250-pound frame ran over and past the Colts with 166 yards (tying the team postseason record of Curtis Martin) while scoring four rushing touchdowns, the most ever for a Patriot. (Ricky Watters set the NFL postseason record with five for the 49ers against the Giants in 1994.)
The Patriots totaled 234 yards on the ground (Brady threw for just 198), the second-highest total in team postseason history.
"They've got a stable of backs," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "We knew it coming in and [in] Blount, [Stevan] Ridley and Shane Vereen -- they've got a bunch of guys that can hurt you and they did. We knew we were going to get it, and that's what's disappointing and discouraging."
Blount's biggest run came with 13:08 left in the fourth quarter with the Patriots struggling to put the Colts, who trailed 14-0 and 21-7, away at 29-22.
It was a regular Patriots power run, with left guard Logan Mankins pulling on a play that's designed to go outside to the right. But with right tackle Marcus Cannon and right guard Dan Connolly clearing out the tackle with a double team and rooting out the linebackers, and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui stymieing All-Pro outside linebacker Robert Mathis at the point of attack, Blount read the blocks correctly, cut back and was virtually untouched for a 73-yard touchdown.
"There's nothing better than seeing that big guy out in the open field," Mankins said. "Man, he grabs another gear from somewhere and he starts moving."
The Patriots' defense did the rest with Jamie Collins snaring the third of the team's four interceptions of Luck, whose heroics keyed a 28-point comeback last week against the Chiefs to punch Indianapolis' ticket to Foxborough. Collins, a second-round draft pick forced into a starting role with the rash of Patriots defensive injuries, had six tackles, a sack, two tackles for a loss and two quarterback hits.
"I'm disappointed in myself -- I can't commit that many turnovers and have a chance to win against a good team like this," said Luck, who made a handful of incredible throws while going 20 of 41 for 331 yards, with two touchdowns and four interceptions, two of those coming from cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.
The Patriots were able to take the Colts' best players out of the game. They mixed coverages and hit Luck 10 times to get him out of his game. Receiver T.Y. Hilton, who caught 13 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns against Kansas City, was limited to four catches for 103 yards (two for 17 in the first half) by cornerback Aqib Talib. Mathis, who had a huge sack/fumble against the Chiefs, was largely invisible with just one sack and one additional quarterback hit.
And while the Patriots' passing game wasn't gaudy, it was effective enough to help convert 11 of 18 third-down opportunities. Receiver Julian Edelman had six catches for 84 yards, and Danny Amendola had a big 53-yard reception off play-action that set up the team's first score in the second half.
Now the Patriots are going to their third-straight AFC title game, and eighth in the 13 seasons Brady and coach Bill Belichick have been together.
"Everybody contributed," Brady said. "The games only get bigger, so it will be a fun week to get ready. You don't take it for granted and [we'll] try to go play our best game next weekend."