Patriots outgun Colts, 59-24

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Patriots outgun Colts, 59-24

FOXBORO -- He looked invincible at the start, Andrew Luck did. He led the Colts on scoring drives of 80 and 84 yards the first two times Indianapolis had the ball -- burning New England's newest secondary hopeful, Aqib Talib, twice during the second -- and it seemed Luck would be a worthy successor to Peyton Manning in a suddenly rejuvenated PatriotsColts rivalry.

Then he reminded us that he's a rookie after all.

He threw not one, but two pick-sixes (and three interceptions overall) to a Patriot secondary that has spent the season making stars of the Russell Wilsons and Kevin Kolbs of the world. He botched the time management of a late first-half drive, forcing the Colts to settle for an impossible Adam Vinatieri 58-yard field-goal attempt when they still only trailed by seven. He was strip-sacked by Rob Ninkovich in the third quarter, a turnover that Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski turned into a touchdown just six second later.

Game summary and statistics

Luck's numbers in the end were decent (27-of-50, 334 yards, 2 touchdowns) as he recorded his fifth 300-yard game of the season, the most for a rookie in NFL history. But that many mistakes -- even against a defense as soft as New England's -- usually spells disaster and it did Sunday, as the Patriots pulled away to an easy 59-24 victory at Gillette Stadium.

The victory may prove to be Pyrrhic, if Rob Gronkowski (who, according to sources, suffered a broken forearm) is sidelined for any length of time. But prior to Gronk's injury it was, in the words of Tom Brady, a "fun day".

Julian Edelman (69-yard punt return, 2-yard pass from Brady) and Gronkowski (passes of 4 and 24 yards from Brady) each scored a pair of touchdowns for New England. The Pats also got interception returns for TDs of 59 yards from Talib -- more than making up for his miscues on the second drive -- and 87 yards from Alonzo Dennard; scoring runs of three yards by Stevan Ridley and four yards by Shane Vereen, and a 31-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski . . . who also tied the franchise record for extra points in a game, with eight.

The 59 points tied the franchise record for most points in a game, set in a 59-0 win over Tennessee in 2009.

"That was awesome," said Brady. "That was a team win. We got contributions from all three units."

There wasn't much of a contribution on the defensive side of the ball at the beginning. Luck shredded the Pats defense the first two times he had the ball, with a one-yard scoring run by Delone Carter capping a game-opening 80-yard drive, and a 14-yard TD pass from Luck to T.Y. Hilton finishing off an 84-yard march that made the score 14-7.

And Bill Belichick was impressed.

"There were five or six times in the game where I thought we were draped all over him; it didn't seem like there was much space at all to get the ball in, and he got it in and they caught it," said the Patriots coach. "They made some good throws and tough catches in there where I thought we had them covered pretty well, but they were still able to execute it."

The game turned quickly, however. The first time the Pats forced Luck and the Colts to punt, Julian Edelman returned it 68 yards for a touchdown, tying the score in the second quarter.

"Julian's been dying to get out there and make plays and he certainly did today," said Brady, referring to the three games Edelman missed because of a broken hand. "And we needed it."

Then it was Talib, who picked off Luck on the second play of the next drive and returned it 59 yards for the touchdown that put New England ahead to stay.

"He's a great cornerback, that's why they traded for him," said Hilton. "He was able to do some things tonight."

Adam Vinatieri (47 yards) and Gostkowski traded field goals later in the quarter, making it 24-17, but Luck's inexperience showed on the last drive of the half. Taking possession at his own 10 with slightly less than two minutes to play, he was able to move the ball downfield (passes of 19 yards to Donnie Avery and 16 yards to Dwayne Allen) and eventually got the Colts into New England territory. But the Colts didn't use their timeouts wisely and took too much time between plays, and in the end had to settle for a 58-yard FG attempt by Vinatieri. It was out of his range, and the half ended with the Patriots maintaining their seven-point lead.

And then they blew it open in the second half. Edelman's second touchdown put them in front 31-17; Gronkowski's second, after the Ninkovich strip sack and fumble recovery, made it 38-17; Dennard's 87-yard interception return on the first play of the fourth quarter gave them a 45-17 lead. After Luck threw a 43-yard scoring pass to Hilton, the Pats added the Ridley and Vereen touchdown runs for the 59-24 final.

One of the keys was their ability to put pressure on Luck, which, in turn, helped the secondary by reducing the amount of time it had to cover.

"That was the point of emphasis, get pressure on Luck," said safety Steve Gregory. "Because if you just let him stand there and throw the ball, he can pick you apart. So we wanted to focus in on getting pressure on the guy, and the guys up front did a great job of it."

The pressure forced the mistakes -- the rookie mistakes -- and the Pats capitalized for their fourth win a row. They're now 7-3, in solid possession of first place in the AFC East, and in position to maneuver their way to another first-round playoff bye if Houston or Baltimore falters in the final six weeks.

That's thinking a little too far ahead for Brady's taste.

"I think we're trying to make improvements," he said. "I don't think we're anywhere where we need to be at this point."

But where they are was more than good enough Sunday.

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

For all the flack that Matt Ryan got heading into this season, he’s been a damn good quarterback. Is his career on the same level as Tom Brady’s? Of course not, but this regular season saw him stand as Brady’s peer, making him an MVP favorite.

One of Ryan’s biggest challengers for that hardware is the same man who stands in the way of him winning his first Super Bowl. Though he missed the first four games of the season due to suspension, Brady finished second in the league in passing yards per game and threw just two picks in 12 games while tossing 28 touchdowns.  

So Super Bowl LI will pin the quarterback with the best numbers overall (Ryan finished two touchdowns behind Aaron Rodgers for the league lead but threw for 516 more yards and had a higher completion percentage) against the quarterback with the best touchdown/interception ratio ever for a single season. 

In other words, this is a Super Bowl that puts what one could argue are the season’s two best quarterbacks each other. That’s pretty rare. 

Going back the last 25 years, there are four candidates for such meetings: Manning vs. Brees in Super Bowl XLIV, Favre and Elway in Super Bowl XXXII (this one is a stretch), Favre and Bledsoe in Super Bowl XXXI and Kelly and Rypien in Super Bowl XXVI.. 

Why haven’t the two best quarterbacks squared off in the Super Bowl more often? Because Brady and Peyton Manning played their entire careers in the same conference, silly. It’s taken other players entering their echelon to even set up such a scenario, and that’s why Brees’ Saints beating Manning’s Colts serves as the only example during Manning or Brady’s career. 

The strong performances of those who dominated the regular season have often carried over into their Super Bowl meetings, but not always. Drew Bledsoe and Jim Kelly (both throwing two touchdowns and four picks in Super Bowl losses) are examples of the wheels falling off in the final game. 

Here’s a breakdown of past occurrences. Note that all four of them saw the winning team score at least 30 points, something the Pats have done just once in Brady's four Super Bowl wins: 

Super Bowl XLIV: Brees vs. Manning

Brees led NFL with 34 touchdowns in regular season; Manning finished tied for second with 33

Final score: Saints 31, Colts 17

Brees: 32/39, 288 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Manning: 31/45, 333 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT

Brees completed a postseason in which he had no turnovers and did so in a nearly exactly average game for him that season, as e averaged 292.5 yards, 2.26 touchdowns and less than one interception per game in the regular season. The two quarterbacks also combined for just one sack. 
 
Super Bowl XXXII: Favre vs. Elway

Favre led NFL with 35 TDs in regular season, Elway finished second in TD/interception ratio

Final score: Broncos 31, Packers 24

Favre: 25/42, 256 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, fumble lost 
Elway: 12/22, 123 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT

Again, this is the forced one because Jeff George (3,917 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, nine interceptions) had the better regular season than Elway (3,635 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, 11 picks). Elway may have been the winning quarterback, but he didn’t have anything to do with the win. Terrell Davis carried the Broncos, playing through a migraine and rushing for 157 yards with three touchdowns en route to Super Bowl MVP honors. 

Super Bowl XXXI: Favre vs. Bledsoe

Favre led NFL with 39 TDs, Bledsoe third with 27

Final Score: Packers 35, Patriots 21

Favre: 14/27, 246 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Bledsoe: 25/48, 253 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT

Both quarterbacks took five sacks in this game. For Bledsoe, it was the most he took all season. The game was the third four-pick performance of his NFL career. 

Super Bowl XXVI: Kelly vs. Rypien

Kelly led NFL with 33 TDs, Rypien second with 28

Final score: Redskins 37, Bills 24

Rypien: 18/33, 292 yards, 2 TD, INT
Kelly: 28/58, 275 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT, fumble lost

Turns out five turnovers (and being sacked four times) is not a recipe for winning the Super Bowl. Kelly’s 58 passes thrown set a Super Bowl record.
 

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Working for the Patriots makes you attractive to other teams. Many have left, but Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli are finally showing that major success can be attained in the process. 

Dimitroff and Pioli have built a team in Atlanta that will play for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title on Feb. 5. While many have been hired away from Bill Belichick's Patriots to lead other organizations, Dimitroff is the first of the defectors to get to the Super Bowl on his own. Adding an old friend in Pioli has played a part in that. 

Dimitroff served as New England’s director of college scouting from 2003 through 2007 before becoming Atlanta’s general manager in 2008. He hired Pioli in 2014 as an assistant GM after the longtime Patriots director and vice president of player personnel had a messy stint as the Chiefs’ GM. 

Executives and coaches (even Field Yates; yes, the fair-haired boy from the television) leaving the Patriots for better positions with other organizations has been common, but with the new positions have often come diminished success compared to New England. 

Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Bill O’Brien, Charlie Weis (in his brief return to the NFL in 2010) and Josh McDaniels make up the list of coordinators who have left winning with the Patriots to experience a dropoff without Brady and Belichick. John Robinson (Titans), Jason Licht (Buccaneers) and Bob Quinn (Lions) currently serve as GMs elsewhere, while former Pats secondary coach Joe Collier works with Dimitroff and Pioli as the Falcons’ director of pro personnel. 

It’s only fitting that Dimitroff and Pioli will have to go through Belichick in order to secure a title on their own. Winning without Belichick has proven hard enough for his former colleagues; winning against him will be even harder.