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Tom Brady, Patriots reach another AFC title game

The scheme changes. The players change. The inevitable injured stars change. The only thing that remains the same in New England are Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and playoff success.

The Patriots returned to the AFC Championship Game with a 43-22 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday. It is the third straight AFC title game for this late-era Brady squad, and the eighth conference championship of Brady's career.

The defining trait of Belichick teams: their ability to adapt. With few explosive threats on the outside, the 2013 Patriots are a power-running team that just happened to be led by one of the best quarterbacks of all time. Brady threw for just 198 passing yards on 25 attempts without a single score. Yet New England still racked up 43 points because of six rushing touchdowns and 234 yards on the ground. Running back LeGarrette Blount, in many ways the symbol of this Patriots season, had 166 rushing yards and four scores, including a decisive 73-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.

This explosion by Blount was possible to see coming if you were watching the Patriots down the stretch. After struggling early in the year, this is one of the best offenses in the league. Their offensive line has been pushing opponents around, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has done a nice job mixing Blount, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. Blount has 355 rushing yards in the last two games alone.

We expected the Patriots to score, but their defense was the bigger question entering Saturday. Andrew Luck made his share of incredible highlights, but New England picked off Luck four times, including a tone-setting near-pick six by Alfonzo Dennard to start the game. Luck makes plays that no other quarterback can make. But he's still early in his development, and was forced to carry a flawed team with no running game, too few weapons and a defense that fell apart in the playoffs.

One thing we've learned about Luck: He's currently closer to Brett Favre or Steve McNair in playing style than he is a surgical decision-maker like Brady or Peyton Manning. Luck has to take chances to give his team a chance to win. But those chances caught up to him Saturday.

No one sees the Patriots' defense as a shutdown group, but they finished in the top 10 in points allowed and turnovers forced. Rookie linebacker Jamie Collins has been a revelation as a 250-pound player that is excellent in coverage and rushing the passer. (He had three QB hits, two tackles for loss, one sack and one interception.) Unsung players like Dennard and defensive tackle Joe Vellano also came up big.

Win or lose next Sunday, this is a Patriots squad that has maximized its talent after a cavalcade of big injuries. But Brady and Belichick aren't interested in overachieving before falling short again. Anything but a fourth Super Bowl title would be a bitter disappointment. That's the high bar the Pats have set, and it's remarkable how routine they make it look to reach the NFL's final four.

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