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New England Patriots display shape-shifting brilliance on O-line

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Sometimes the most creative thing to do is the same old thing.

Across the country, the reverberations from the Seattle Seahawks' comeback were still shaking the league Sunday night. By then, the Patriots were already draining the drama from the AFC Championship Game as steadily as the New England downpour that doused the evening, running right at the Indianapolis Colts, just as they had in dominating wins earlier this season and last.

The tackle-eligible touchdown pass to an uncovered Nate Solder was not really necessary, just a nifty wrinkle Bill Belichick unveiled after using extra linemen all season -- particularly in these two games against the Colts -- but only to power the run before. That will be useful for two weeks, giving the Seahawks something else to ponder when they plan for a team so versatile and opponent-specific that they won one playoff game without a called run in the second half, and won the next with those heavy lines escorting LeGarrette Blount to three touchdowns to complement Tom Brady's three touchdown tosses.

The Colts, it turned out, were no real match for the Patriots, not in personnel or preparation. Andrew Luck hasn't yet solved Belichick's defense, throwing 10 interceptions in four career games against the Patriots. But what this 45-7 victory did was establish the Patriots -- in their sixth trip to the Super Bowl with Belichick and Tom Brady -- as a worthy foe for the defending champions, in a game so full of stars who rise to the moment that the edge might go to whichever coach is more aggressive, whoever thinks furthest outside the box.

"It will be a defensive game," said Brandon Browner, the Patriots cornerback who played for the Seahawks last season. "I don't want to say too much. I've been thinking about this for months. Ali-Frazier, if that's what you want to call it. I call it Seahawks-Patriots."

That will be good enough. This will be the Patriots' third chance to win their fourth Super Bowl -- to extend a dynasty by halting a nascent one in the Pacific Northwest -- but even if they fail in Glendale, as they did against the Giants at the end of the 2007 season, their consistency, shape-shifting all the while, has been staggering. In the locker room after the game, as players posed for pictures with the Lamar Hunt Trophy and danced, team owner Robert Kraft said he thought Belichick and Brady should be considered the best ever.

Kraft is biased of course, particularly because he fired the coach who will be on the opposing sideline, Pete Carroll, and replaced him with Belichick. It is hard to argue with Kraft's assessment, nonethless. Brady will be the first quarterback to start six Super Bowls and Belichick, with 21 victories, is now the winningest coach in postseason history.

But it is the offensive line that, this season, has been a microcosm of what has sustained the Patriots since 2001 -- an ability and willingness to switch personas, to go from a defense-reliant team when Brady was first taking over, to one fueled by an explosive offense that featured Brady and Randy Moss in a spread attack and now one that shows remarkable balance. All have been successful to varying degrees, although almost all degrees of Patriots success have eclipsed other teams for 14 years.

Earlier this season, the offensive line was largely blamed for the Patriots' struggles, particularly in a 41-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs that sunk the Patriots to 2-2, called Brady's future into question and that Kraft called the worst loss he had felt with Belichick as coach. But in the next game against Cincinnati, the line stabilized as the Patriots settled on the correct combination of players. The end result is a line that has protected Brady as it did last week against the Ravens, when he attempted 50 passes (even after center Bryan Stork was hurt), and steamrolled opponents like the Colts to give life to a running game that accumulated 177 yards on 40 carries this week. Since that shaky start, and since Belichick declared that the Patriots were "on to Cincinnati," New England has gone 12-2, losing by five points at Lambeau Field before conceding a meaningless game to close out the regular season.

"It's a game-by-game basis and whatever works best is what we're going to do," said offensive tackle Cameron Fleming, who was surprised to hear he was declared eligible, by one count, 28 times against the Colts. "Today with the extra lineman, going in to try to pound the ball, it worked best. I think they wanted to see if we could grind the ball out, take some time off the clock."

In practice, Fleming was the designated receiver on the pass that Solder caught Sunday night. The way the Patriots operate puts pressure on the players to be prepared for a variety of roles. They rarely play the same way two weeks in a row, and even on Sunday, Belichick said that running against Indy this time was much more difficult than it was in the regular season, when Jonas Gray rumbled through the Colts. Even Rob Gronkowski, who has often seemed like the most important non-quarterback in the NFL, caught just three passes Sunday, an improbable stat line for a blowout.

"That's what practice is for," Fleming said. "Of course we adjust. We trust the coaches that it will work -- and it usually does."

Yes, it usually does. The Seahawks' defense will present a unique challenge because of its size and physicality, and it will likely try to brutalize the Patriots' passing game the way it did the Broncos' attack one year ago. The Patriots need only look at the Packers to know the importance of keeping their feet firmly planted on the gas when they have the ball. The truth, though, is that Belichick has never needed that reminder. Whether he goes with six linemen or four, with a run-heavy game plan or a pass-happy one, the Patriots befuddle opponents who struggle to figure out which version of the Patriots they will get.

It might not matter. With a smile in the rain, Belichick said the Patriots were on to Seattle. If it goes anything like the last time the Patriots turned the page, the Seahawks, winners of eight straight, might not recognize their opponent -- or the results they deliver.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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