Brady, Belichick, Pats up to old tricks

January 19, 2015, 2:39 AM

— -- FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There are certain truths about the Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots, version 8.0, that have proved to be self-evident: Their quarterback will make plays, their coach will make those plays creative, and you really don't have any idea what they might do once the ball is snapped.

Just like the old days.

Long, long ago, when Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were in the habit of winning a Super Bowl every time they tried (3-for-3 in 2001, 2003 and 2004), their offensive arsenal relied on an unpredictable parcel of plays that included throwing the ball to linebackers and utilizing defensive tackles as blockers at the goal line.

It has been 10 years since the Patriots have basked in those Super Bowl-victory glory days, and Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour aren't walking through that door.

Doesn't matter. Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have devised a bevy of 2015 wrinkles that have galvanized a roster that is deep, explosive and built to win it all.

The Patriots punched their ticket to Arizona by dominating an overmatched Indianapolis Colts team 45-7 on a rain-swept night that displayed yet more evidence of their versatility.

New England continues to keep opponents guessing, and the angst it causes them, said receiver Brandon LaFell, is palpable.

"When we do all that stuff, with the ineligible receivers and all this, you see a lot of pointing and fussing," LaFell explained. "We're going so fast, they get confused. But at the end of the day we still have to go out and execute the play." Last Saturday in a divisional-round win over Baltimore, the "trickery" revolved around ineligible receivers lined up in the backfield, a strategy that caused Ravens coach John Harbaugh to implode in a fervent fit of sideline rage. Harbaugh cried foul, the league office disagreed and the Patriots marched on.

The wrinkle on Sunday was to flummox the Colts with an eligible receiver instead of an ineligible one.

On 10 occasions, New England declared offensive lineman Cameron Fleming as eligible, only to have him line up in his usual spot on the line.

The 11th time the Patriots declared an offensive lineman eligible, they tagged left tackle Nate Solder as the designated beneficiary. Solder also lined up in his customary spot, but when the ball was snapped, the former tight end chugged up the field, turned, grabbed a short Brady toss and rumbled 16 yards into the end zone.

It should not shock you to learn it was Solder's first career touchdown -- not to mention his first career reception.

Nor should it shock you that the touchdown was the official death knell of the not-so-upstart Colts.

As Indy's veteran backup quarterback  Matt Hasselbeck, who has been around for much of the Belichick/Brady era, noted, "They make you beat them left-handed." One week New England's offense runs the ball a grand total of 13 times and Brady does not hand off the ball a single time in the second half. The next week, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, the Patriots rush for 177 yards and hand the ball to LeGarrette Blount a playoff franchise-record 30 times.

You knew it was going to be New England's day when fullback James Develin and Solder hauled in a touchdown pass each before Rob Gronkowski had caught a single ball.

There was a time (last season, actually) when no Gronk meant no chance. His minimal production on Sunday (three catches, 28 yards, one TD) was a byproduct of the attention he draws as well as the game plan, which was to pound the ball on the ground and enable Blount to further thumb his nose at every Steelers disciple who had to stomach watching him bull down the field with the Patriots' logo on his shirt.

Blount was cut by Pittsburgh for what amounted to insubordination because he sulked and soured the locker room when he wasn't getting enough touches. He quickly rejoined the Patriots, who have morphed him into the featured back who spouts an "it's all about the team" mantra.

Give the offensive line its due for providing protection for Brady and blocking for Blount. There was some concern how the line would fare with rookie center Bryan Stork (knee injury) out of the mix, but Ryan Wendell slipped into his center position, Josh Kline was plugged in at guard and the machine kept humming.

It's more fun to highlight the creativity of the offense, but the Patriots' defense was equally commanding, harassing Andrew Luck (12-for-33, 126 yards, two interceptions) into the most demoralizing outing of his young career.

The defense, said Brandon Browner, isn't above a little "trickery" of its own.

"The game plan the coaches drew up enabled us to eliminate their big-threat receiver [ T.Y. Hilton]," Browner said, "and also allowed us to mix it up with [Coby] Fleener. Sometimes we used a big guy like myself on him. Then we'd turn around and throw a guy with quickness like Malcolm Butler on him. We kept them off balance a bit." Remember the dispirited Patriots group that lost 41-14 to Kansas City in Week 4? The memory of that debacle has been vaporized by a stout defense and a rejuvenated offense. Belichick shook up his offensive line, added more reps for Gronk (who was working his way back into the lineup as he recovered from his ACL surgery) and began carving out some touches for LaFell. Blount joined the fun in late November, and the defense solidified despite losing linebacker Jerod Mayo for the year.

Next up is Seattle and former Patriots coach Pete Carroll, who was thought to be "too nice" to succeed as an NFL coach. Carroll won his first Super Bowl last year and his team is looking to be the first to repeat since the 2004 Patriots.

The Seahawks looked close to invincible until Sunday, when they eked out a thrilling but mistake-filled overtime win against the Green Bay Packers despite four interceptions from Russell Wilson.

Browner, who played for Seattle last season, said he "just knew those guys would [come out on top]." "I felt these two teams would be in this game since day one," Browner said. "As soon as I signed [with New England], I knew I was going to meet up with those guys again." Four weeks into the season, when the Patriots were 2-2, that notion seemed preposterous. Brady's uneven play left him saddled with the "veteran in decline" label, and some had the temerity to declare No. 12 should be benched or traded.

Brady heard similar scuttlebutt last year when the Broncos ended New England's season in the AFC title game. But a year ago at this time, Gronk was in street clothes, wondering if his career was over, and Darrelle Revis was a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

They have come together at the right time, spurred on by a quarterback who knows his opportunities are dwindling. Brady's emotional sideline celebration in the waning minutes of Sunday's shellacking sent the fans into a rain-soaked frenzy.

"You only see that on Sundays," LaFell said. "Tom's like that every day. He's fired up even when he's making plays in practice. I'm just glad he didn't turn around and head-butt me with my helmet off." Brady was predictably understated when queried about his three-touchdown performance. He acknowledged the moving parts of an evolving offense have made his team dangerous.

"I don't know, maybe we have more tricks up our sleeve," he said.

The Patriots' coaching staff will have two weeks to unveil some additional chicanery specific to the Seahawks.

There's more. You know there is. Maybe Revis will catch a pass. Maybe Brady will kick a field goal.

The Patriots are going to the Super Bowl, and suddenly, anything seems possible.

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