Brady tied an NFL postseason record with six touchdown passes, including five in the first half, as the Patriots roughed up Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos 45-10 on Saturday night.
“He’s been around the block a few times. He knows how to win games,” Denver’s Champ Bailey said of Brady. “If you’re not ready to punch him in the mouth, he’s going to eat you up all night.”
The Patriots (14-3) will face the winner of Sunday’s Houston-Baltimore game in the AFC championship. The Texans (11-6) are coming off the first postseason victory in franchise history and meet the Ravens (12-4), who were 8-0 at home during the regular season.
At San Francisco, the Alex Smith-to-Vernon Davis connection has the 49ers in the NFC championship game and the stunned New Orleans Saints headed home.
Smith threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Davis with 9 seconds left just after Drew Brees put the high-powered Saints ahead, and resurgent San Francisco (14-3) capitalized on five New Orleans turnovers for a thrilling 36-32 playoff victory.
Joe Montana to Dwight Clark in 1982 was “The Catch.” Steve Young to Terrell Owens in 1999 was “The Catch II.” This group of 49ers has its own playoff-punctuating play.
“You’ve got to call it `The Grab,’” Davis said. “We were down. I had to make it happen to take my teammates where we want to go.”
The 49ers will take on the winner of Sunday’s showdown between Aaron Rodgers and the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers (15-1) and Eli Manning and the New York Giants (10-7).
At Foxborough, Mass., the Patriots snapped a three-game postseason losing streak and lifted the Patriots to the verge of their fifth Super Bowl trip in 11 seasons.
“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.
It also 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.
“I was really proud of what he showed and where he brought this football team,” coach John Fox said. “We’re a work-in-progress.”
Patriots All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski tied a postseason mark with three touchdown catches, all in the opening half. 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; Brady’s five in one half set a league playoff mark.
“There were a lot of ups and downs this season,” Tebow said. “To win some special games, to get in the playoffs, there’s a lot of great things about this year.”
At San Francisco, Smith ran for a 28-yard TD with 2:11 left and threw another scoring pass to Davis in the first quarter. Coach Jim Harbaugh’s NFC West champions proved that a hard-hitting, stingy defense can still win in the modern, wide-open NFL by holding off one of league’s most dynamic offenses.
“This is big for us,” Davis said. “It’s history. It’s legendary.”
Brees completed a 66-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham with 1:37 left and the Saints seemed poised to rally from a 17-point deficit for a victory. Then Smith and Davis delivered.
San Francisco triumphed in its first playoff game in nine years, and is a win away from returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since capturing the franchise’s fifth championship after the 1994 season.
Brees, whose team was coming off consecutive 600-yard games, completed 40 of 63 passes for 462 yards and four touchdowns and was sacked three times. He also threw two interceptions, his first in the postseason in five years, and New Orleans (14-4) fell short again in its quest to get back to the Super Bowl after winning it all two years ago. The Saints are still searching for the first postseason road victory in franchise history after falling to 0-5.
“It stings right now because of the expectation level that we had coming into this tournament and understanding that if we win here, we’re into the NFC championship game and anything can happen,” Brees said. “That’s tough. Tough to swallow at this point.”
At Baltimore, the AFC North champion Ravens are confident that home-field advantage will be a big factor in their bid to defeat the Texans and earn a berth in the conference title game. It will be the Ravens’ first home playoff game since 2006 and the first for star running back Ray Rice, now in his fourth NFL season.
“It’s a dream come true,” Rice said. “I played every playoff game that there was since I’ve been a rookie, and they’ve all been on the road. … Trust me, it’s a lot different than playing at home. So, a home playoff game definitely plays big on our behalf.”
The Texans know all about that. They beat Cincinnati 31-10 last week at Reliant Stadium.
“The crowd really gets behind them,” offensive tackle Duane Brown said of the Ravens. “We played them in the regular season, and I’m sure it’s going to be multiplied times 10, 20 now that it’s the playoffs.”
At Green Bay, Rodgers and the Packers’ offense has been terrific all season. The defense, however, has been vulnerable – something the Giants hope to take advantage of. The teams played Dec. 4, when the Packers won 38-35 on a last-second field goal.
“I think if we get into a shootout like we did last time, I think we will be OK,” wide receiver Victor Cruz said. “But it will have to come down to who has the last touch.”
Meanwhile, the Packers’ defense is looking to hit the reset button in the playoffs.
“This is a fresh start for us to right all our wrongs,” defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said.