All the heroics, all the big plays and quite a few records belonged to quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots on Saturday night as they routed the much-hyped Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos 45-10 in their NFL divisional play-off.
Brady threw six touchdown passes, five in the first half, putting the Patriots into the AFC championship game and silencing the frenzy surrounding Tebow.
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's romp snapped a three-game post-season 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, two with Brady as the game's MVP.
"We came in and started fast and it was a big win for us," said Brady, who even had a 48-yard punt on third down in the last quarter. "I have no idea about records and stuff like that. Any time you score 45, with the help of our defence, and special teams played great -- hopefully we can go out next week and play even better."
From the first snap, this was a mismatch. The Patriots were not going to make the same mistakes the Steelers made against Denver.
A nation transfixed by Tebow's play, and overt Christian displays, tuned in to see if he had any more magic 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 jeering Tebow. On the next play, the Broncos quarterback was sacked for an 11-yard loss -- one of five sacks for New England's defence. And so ended one of the season's most exciting storylines -- one that began when Denver were 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. It's hard to see them all right now."
Denver couldn't cover or tackle Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who tied a post-season mark with three touchdown catches, all in the opening half. Brady toyed with the Broncos (9-9), throwing more touchdown passes than Tebow had completions (three) in the first 30 minutes.
Brady's sixth touchdown was to his other tight end, Aaron Hernandez, as the quarterback tied Steve Young and Daryle Lamonica for the most in a post-season game. Brady moved to third place in career touchdown passes in the play-offs with 36, trailing Joe Montana (45) and Brett Favre (44). He was 26 for 34 for 363 yards and Gronkowski made 10 catches for 145 yards as the Patriots gained 509 yards in all. In stark contrast, Tebow was nine for 26 for 136 yards.
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, threw up a surprise 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 and Willis McGahee scored on a five-yard run. The Patriots regrouped and took complete control from there on. Brady's touchdown passes covered 10, 12 and 19 yards to Gronkowski, seven 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, but the Patriots stalled inside the Denver 5 early in the fourth period and Stephen Gostkowski made a 21-yard field goal to finish the scoring.
The Baltimore Ravens will be the Patriots' opponents in the AFC final after last night's 20-13 victory over the Houston Texans.
In San Francisco, meanwhile, quarterback Alex Smith completed a touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with nine seconds left to give the 49ers a thrilling 36-32 win over the New Orleans Saints.
Smith's 14-yard pass came just after New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees had put his team ahead, but the Saints were left to rue five turnovers which did as much as anything to hand the game to the resurgent San Francisco.
Coach Jim Harbaugh's NFC West champions (14-3) proved that a hard-hitting, stingy defence can still win in the modern, wide-open NFL, holding off one of league's most dynamic offences.
Smith also ran for a 28-yard touchdown with 2:11 left, but in a see-sawing finish Brees completed a 66-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham with 1:37 left. That seemed to be enough to complete a successful rally by the Saints from a 17-point deficit, only for Smith and Davis to deliver the winning score.
San Francisco triumphed in their first play-off game in nine years and will move on to face the New York Giants or defending champion Green Bay Packers, who played last night.