Law intercepted the previously flawless Colts quarterback three times, Rodney Harrison added another, and the Patriots beat Indianapolis 24-14 to advance to their second Super Bowl in three seasons. Jarvis Green had three of New England’s four sacks as the constant pressure made the NFL’s co-MVP look very average.
The Patriots will play Carolina in the Super Bowl on Feb. 1 in Houston, and were quickly installed as seven-point favorites. The Panthers won the NFC championship by beating the Philadelphia Eagles 14-3.
Had New England been able to score down close, it would have been no contest. The Patriots had only one TD, settled for five field goals by Adam Vinatieri and lost the ball at the Indy 5 early in the fourth quarter when Tom Brady threw his first interception in 10 home games this season.
“To go out and pick, pick, pick a guy that everybody was building up. It was huge for us,” Harrison said, referring to Manning, who threw eight touchdowns with no interceptions in playoff wins over Denver and Kansas City.
The Colts never really got going Sunday until it was too late to do anything against a defense that held Marvin Harrison, one of the game’s leading receivers, to three catches for 19 yards.
Things were so bad that when the Colts finally had to punt for the first time in the playoffs, the snap went over the punter’s head and resulted in a safety.
“They did a good job defending us but we did things we haven’t done. We turned the ball over, we snapped a poor snap on the punt,” Colts coach Tony Dungy said. “We made some miscues and New England is a good enough team to take advantage of that.”
Except when he got close to the goal line, Brady was almost as good in the cold weather as Manning had been in his first two games under far more ideal conditions.
The Patriots improved to 16-2 by winning their 14th straight game, the best single-season streak since the perfect Miami Dolphins did it in 1972.
“To win 14 in a row is great,” Brady said. “But it means nothing if you don’t get the 15th.”
With the victory, coach Bill Belichick is 5-0 in the postseason with the Patriots, who won the NFL championship two years ago by beating St. Louis.
New England dominated early, taking the opening kickoff right down the field for a touchdown on the pass from Brady to Givens. It was 15-0 at the half on two of Vinatieri’s field goals plus the safety on the botched punt.
“We knew we could move the ball on them,” said New England tight end Christian Fauria. “We thought the mismatch was our offense against their defense.”
The Colts (14-5) cut it to 15-7 on Edgerrin James’ 2-yard TD run at the start of the third quarter. But Brady led New England to two more short field goals and the defense took it from there. Indianapolis scored with 2:27 left on a 7-yard TD pass to Marcus Pollard, making it 21-14.
But Fauria recovered the ensuing onside kick for the Patriots. The Colts got the ball back on downs, but the Patriots’ defense held them.
“I just made some bad throws, some bad decisions,” said Manning, whose passer rating was nearly perfect until this week. The four interceptions were the most he had thrown since Nov. 25, 2001, when he threw four against San Francisco.
“I thought the Patriots played extremely well and we didn’t,” he added.
He finished 23-of-47 for 237 yards, with one touchdown and four interceptions.
The Patriots dominated the first half, forcing three early turnovers. Two of them stopped potential scores by the Colts and the third led to a field goal. Still, 15-0 wasn’t much of a lead against a team known for coming back from big deficits.
New England went 65 yards in 13 plays for a touchdown on the opening drive of the game, with Brady finding a wide-open Givens from 7 yards out for the score. Brady threw for 49 yards on the drive and Givens had four catches. But the key play was a 2-yard sneak by the New England quarterback on fourth-and-1 from his own 44.
Manning seemed ready to counter, driving the Colts 68 yards to the New England 5. But on third down, Harrison stepped in front of Pollard and picked off the ball, the first interception for Manning in three postseason games.
Vinatieri’s 31-yard field goal 2:16 into the second quarter made it 10-0.
Law’s first interception, a one-handed over-the-shoulder grab, came on Indy’s first play of the next series. New England drove 52 yards—including another fourth-down conversion on a pass from Brady to Troy Brown—to set up Vinatieri’s 25-yarder that made it 13-0.
Then came what was supposed to be Indianapolis’ first punt of the postseason. Instead, Justin Snow snapped the ball over the head of punter Hunter Smith, who had little choice but to kick it out of bounds for a safety.
Indy’s best chance before intermission came after David Macklin recovered Bethel Johnson’s fumble at the New England 41. But five plays later, Rodney Harrison knocked the ball loose from Marvin Harrison, Tyrone Poole fell on it, and the Patriots had the ball back.
Indy’s first score came on the opening possession of the second half. The Colts drove 52 yards on 12 plays with James going in from 2 yards.
But Brady hit Larry Centers for 28 yards on the first play from scrimmage after the score and then found Brown for 17 to set up a 27-yarder by Vinatieri that made it 18-7. Brady put together another drive that set up Vinatieri’s fourth field goal with 1:32 left in the third quarter.
That was really the end for Indy.
“They have very good players and they are well coached, which helps the good players play better,” Dungy said. “They are a really talented group.”