FOXBOROUGH, Mass. >> Tom Brady’s way of dealing with Tebowmania was to silence it with a record-shattering performance.
Brady threw six touchdowns passes, five in the first half, and put the New England Patriots into the AFC championship game after roughing up Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos 45-10 Saturday night.
The Patriots (14-3), winners of nine straight games, will host either Baltimore or Houston next Sunday for a spot in the Super Bowl. Saturday night’s romp snapped a three-game postseason losing streak, two of those at Gillette Stadium, and lifted the Patriots to the verge of their fifth Super Bowl appearance in 11 seasons. They’ve won it three times.
Brady even punted with 2:56 remaining, 48 yards on third down.
And so ended one of the season’s most exciting story lines — one that caught the nation’s attention and 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, and the Broncos ended up backing into the AFC West title.
But Tebow struggled to move the Broncos, completing just five of 16 passes for 61 yards through three. He was also strip-sacked on Denver’s sixth play from scrimmage to set up Gronkowski’s diving 10-yard touchdown catch that gave New England a 14-0 lead midway.
The Broncos seemed to respond when Quinton Carter intercepted Brady, giving Denver the ball at the New England 24 yard-line. Four plays later, on the first play of the second quarter, Willis McGahee ran it in from the 5 to cut the deficit to 14-7.
But Brady hit Gronkowski from 12 yards out to make it 21-7 and then, just before the 2-minute warning, Brady connected with Deion Branch on a 61-yard TD pass down the left sideline to take a 28-7 lead. The four touchdown passes were already a Patriots franchise record for a playoff game.
But Brady and Gronkowski weren’t done yet.
After Denver went three-and-out to give New England the ball back at its own 42 with 69 seconds left in the half, Brady led the Patriots into scoring range and hit Gronkowski at the goal line for a 19-yard score that made it 35-7. Brady’s five TD passes were a record for a playoff half.
Brady hit Aaron Hernandez again, this time from 17 yards out, just 3:14 into the second half to give New England a 42-7 lead. Brady’s six TD passes moved him into third on the NFL’s all-time postseason list with 36, passing Terry Bradshaw, Kurt Warner and Dan Marino.
Matt Prater’s 41-yard field goal late in the third quarter made it 42-10.
With a wind chill of 12 degrees at the kickoff, the Patriots tried to earn their first playoff victory in four years and — for a second time — end Tebow’s remarkable run. The Denver quarterback, who won six straight starts before losing 41-23 to New England on Dec. 18, led the AFC West champion Broncos to a 29-23 overtime victory over Pittsburgh in the opening round on the first play of overtime.
But this time, it was the Patriots (13-3) who struck quickly.
On their first drive, Hernandez lined up in the backfield, took the handoff and ran the ball to the 7; Brady connected with Wes Welker on the next play to give the Patriots a 7-0 lead. The Broncos took over and moved the ball well before Tebow was strip-sacked by linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who also recovered the ball.
It took Brady only seven plays to take New England 59 yards, hitting Gronkowski on a diving catch for the 10-yard touchdown.
Brady completed his first eight passes for 79 yards before throwing an incompletion — and then an interception that set up the Broncos at the Patriots 24.
New England, the No. 1 seed in the AFC, has not won a playoff game since losing the 2008 Super Bowl to the New York Giants to blow a chance at a 19-0 season. The Patriots have lost at home in the postseason in each of the last two years.
The Broncos (9-8) beat New England in the 2005 divisional round — Brady’s first career postseason loss — but missed the playoffs in each of the next five seasons. Denver ended its slump last weekend with a 29-23 victory over the Steelers that lasted just 11 seconds into overtime, when Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas on a short pass and the receiver ran the rest of the way for an 80-yard score.