FOXBORO, Mass. — The quintessential quarterback keeps running into the quintessential team.
For the second year in a row, the New England Patriots made MVP Peyton Manning look ordinary and his Indianapolis teammates inept, this time beating them 20-3 on Sunday behind Corey Dillon’s 144 yards rushing. The Pats held the ball nearly 38 minutes, leaving Manning hardly any time to work his magic.
“I think our defense is what made this game successful,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. “Three points to one of the best offenses in the history of football is incredible.”
Bill Belichick’s punishing defense neutralized Manning’s quarterbacking brilliance and the Colts’ Super Bowl aspirations ended yet again on this snowy New England field.
For the defending champions, one more win in Pittsburgh and it’s on to Jacksonville, Fla., for their third Super Bowl trip in four years.
Manning is 0-7 in Foxboro. Brady is 7-0 in the postseason.
Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest and coach Bill Belichick’s defense spent the day frustrating Manning, who was 27-for-42 for 238 yards. In a stunning failure for the NFL’s most prolific passing attack, the Colts managed only a field goal.
“It was just the best game plan that we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said.
The conditions were just right for the Patriots’ strategy: run the ball, throw short passes and watch the clock tick down, putting together their three most time-consuming drives of the season.
The cold temperatures couldn’t have helped Indianapolis, which plays home games in the 72-degree warmth of the RCA Dome. Last year in Foxboro, Manning threw four interceptions in a 24-14 AFC title game loss.
“I don’t have a clue,” said Edgerrin James, held to 39 yards rushing by the Patriots. “I really don’t know what happened out there. I was just trying to do what I can do.”
Dillon keyed a ball-control offense that kept Manning on the sideline, while Brady threw for one touchdown, ran for another and completed 18 passes in 27 attempts for 144 yards.
“I’m not even recognizing my last seven seasons right now,” said Dillon, who spent them with Cincinnati. “It’s all about this year.”
New England (15-2) led 6-0 on Adam Vinatieri’s field goals of 24 and 31 yards in the second quarter with the first one capping a 16-play, 78-yard march that lasted 9 minutes, 7 seconds.
Indianapolis (13-5) scored on Mike Vanderjagt’s 23-yard field goal on the last play of the first half.
“We just ran into a better team today,” Colts coach Tony Dungy said. “That’s one thing about them. They find a way to win. We felt pretty good sitting 6-3 at the half.”
When Brady threw a 5-yard scoring pass to David Givens to cap a third-quarter drive that lasted 8:16, Manning had to make his remaining possessions count against the hard-hitting defense.
He didn’t — and Brady followed with a 94-yard drive that ended with his 1-yard touchdown run.
Facing a 20-3 deficit with 7:10 left, there was little that even Manning could do.
The Patriots proved once again they could win without their best defenders. Pro Bowl defensive lineman Richard Seymour was sidelined with a knee injury, and starting cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole are on injured reserve. But the Patriots’ defense still stifled the fifth-highest scoring team in NFL history.
The season ended for the Colts right where it started. They lost the opener in Foxboro 27-24 when Vanderjagt missed a 48-yard field goal attempt in the final minute.
And for the Patriots, the road to the Super Bowl once again runs through Pittsburgh, where they won the AFC title in 2002.