By Barry Wilner/The Associated Press
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady silenced Tebowmania with a record-shattering performance.
Brady threw six touchdown passes, five in the first half, putting the New England Patriots into the AFC championship game after roughing up Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos 45-10 Saturday night.
The Patriots (14-3), winners of nine straight games, will host either Baltimore or Houston next Sunday for a spot in the Super Bowl. Saturday night’s romp snapped a three-game postseason losing streak, two of those at Gillette Stadium, and lifted the Patriots to the verge of their fifth Super Bowl appearance in 11 seasons. They’ve won three of those.
“We came in and started fast and it was a big win for us,” said Brady, who even got off a 48-yard punt on third down.
From the first snap, this was a mismatch. The Patriots were not going to make the same mistakes the Steelers made against this team.
“He’s been around the block a few times,” cornerback Champ Bailey said of Brady. “He knows how to win games. If you’re not ready to punch him in the mouth he’s going to eat you up all night.”
A nation transfixed by Tebow’s play, if not his principles, tuned in Saturday to see if he had more heroics in store for Brady and company. He had nothing left as the Patriots made this must-see TV only for those who live in New England.
With New England up 42-7, the fans began their derisive Teeee-bow chants. On the next play, the Broncos quarterback was sacked for an 11-yard loss — one of five sacks for New England’s 31st-ranked defense.
“We went out and played very hard and good things happened,” defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. “A great team win.”
And so ended one of the season’s most exciting story lines — one that began when Denver was 1-4 and made Tebow a starter. The one-time third-stringer promptly won six in a row and seven of eight, with a string of stunning comebacks.
“A lot of ups and downs,” Tebow said of his second NFL season. “Overall, it’s been a very special opportunity for me, something I’m really thankful for. There’s a lot of things we’re proud of. Obviously, it’s hard to see them all right now.”
That winning surge ended with a 41-23 home loss to New England, and the Broncos dropped their next two, backing into the AFC West title.
But they rebounded nicely in their first playoff game since the 2005 season with the longest overtime touchdown in playoff history, an 80-yard catch and run by Demaryius Thomas against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Like everyone else on the Broncos’ offense, Thomas was invisible against the Patriots.
Denver couldn’t cover or tackle All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who tied a postseason mark with three touchdown catches, all in the opening half. Brady toyed with the Broncos (9-9), throwing more TD passes than Tebow had completions (three) in the first 30 minutes.
“We were playing complementary football, and it was awesome,” Gronkowski said. “Obviously, you can’t start off the game any better than that.”
Brady’s sixth TD was to his other tight end, Aaron Hernandez, as the quarterback tied Steve Young and Daryle Lamonica for the most in a postseason game.
The two-time league MVP threw for 5,235 yards during the season, second in NFL history to Drew Brees’ 5,476 in 2011. He looked ready to get that much against the Broncos as he moved to third place in career touchdown passes in the playoffs with 36, trailing Joe Montana (45) and Brett Favre (44).
Brady was 26 for 34 for a team playoff record 363 yards and Gronkowski made 10 catches for 145 yards as the Patriots gained 509 yards in all. In stark contrast, Tebow was 9 for 26 for 136 yards.
The Broncos won the coin toss and elected to defer. Bad idea: They never were in the game after that.
Brady hit his first eight passes for 79 yards and two touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, who’s leaving to become Penn State’s coach once the Patriots are done, threw in a wrinkle by using Hernandez as a running back. On one of those plays, Hernandez broke free down the left sideline for a 43-yard gain, the team’s longest run this season.
But with the ball in his hands and a 14-0 lead, Brady momentarily stumbled. His throw over the middle for Julian Edelman sailed directly to safety Quinton Carter, whose weaving return set up Denver at the New England 24.
Willis McGahee scored on a 5-yard run.
Carter left the game moments later with a neck injury; Denver was already without strong safety Brian Dawkins with a neck problem. And it’s secondary had no chance without them.
Yes, Brady had cooled off in the 24-degree temperature (wind chill of 12), but only for a while.
Using the no-huddle, and aided by an effective running game, Brady hit three passes for 31 yards, with Gronkowski getting free over the middle this time for the 12-yard score. Several times, and not just on his romps into the end zone, Gronkowski simply shoved aside would-be tacklers to tack on yards after catches.
Brady’s TDs covered 10, 12 and 19 yards to Gronkowski, 7 to Wes Welker, 61 to Deion Branch and 17 yards to Hernandez early in the third quarter. Coach Bill Belichick wasn’t about to back off at that point, but the Patriots stalled inside the Denver 5 early in the four period and Stephen Gostkowski made a 21-yard field goal to conclude New England’s scoring.
Hernandez left in the fourth quarter with a head injury.
“He’s feeling great,” Gronkowski said. “Hernandez is a beast and I love playing with him and everything.”
On Brady’s surprise punt, which Belichick said they had worked on for years without using, Broncos rookie linebacker Von Miller slammed into the back of New England’s Dan Connolly, who wasn’t looking. Matt Light then shoved Miller, Connolly turned around and got into a pushing match with Miller as several players joined in and shoved each other, spilling onto the Patriots’ sideline.
Miller drew an unnecessary roughness penalty.