FOXBORO, Mass. -- Call it a vintage Bill Belichick game plan.
How do you match up against an offense that had played like a billion dollars in its first two postseason victories? If you are Belichick, you counter with a defense worth a nickel, of course. Well, maybe not worth a nickel, but rather aligned in a "nickel" for nearly the entire afternoon.
There is a reason Belichick is regarded as the preeminent defensive innovator of this NFL generation and, in the New England Patriots' 24-14 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game here Sunday afternoon, it was again on display. Against an Indianapolis offense that had scored 79 points in two playoff wins, and with quarterback Peyton Manning performing as if he had perhaps invented the forward pass, Belichick unveiled his latest masterstroke design.
And demonstrated once again that, in big games, no one can go grease a board and draw up X's quite like he can.
As a result, the Patriots will return to the championship game for the second time in three years, the first AFC franchise to advance to three Super Bowls in the salary-cap era. It marked the 14th consecutive victory for New England and, from the outset, the Patriots were not only the better of the two teams, but also the one clearly on a mission.
In the locker stalls of New England defenders, blue T-shirts emblazoned with the unit's new nickname, the "Homeland Security" bunch, were on hangers. Certainly the Patriots, who allowed more than 20 points just one time at Gillette Stadium this season, protected their house in diligent manner once again.
"For the whole week (of preparation), the theme was to be physical with their receivers, and to pressure Manning with just our front people," said Patriots cornerback Ty Law, who had three of New England's four interceptions. "We were able to do both things. I thought it was a (complementary) deal. We did our part and the front four did its part."
But it wasn't the normal front line, if there is such an animal for a New England defense always in flux, the Pats typically deploy. Often viewed as a 3-4 front, especially after the training camp trade for nose tackle Ted Washington, the Pats played almost exclusively with four linemen on Sunday afternoon. On most snaps, though, New England had just two traditional linemen playing at tackle. And for the most part, they were flanked by a pair of hybrid linebacker-end defenders, like Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel.
It was the experience of his defense, Belichick contended, that allowed the coaching staff to introduce some new looks in preparing for the explosive Indianapolis offense. It is also the versatility of his linebacker corps, and the punishing nature of a secondary Belichick has rated the best he has ever coached in terms of collective coverage skill, that enabled the Patriots to ignominiously evict Manning from his comfort zone.
In the secondary, the Patriots often jammed Colts receivers at the line of scrimmage, and rarely permitted an easy release. Safeties Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson, a rookie, hit everything that moved into their crosshairs. When the corners moved up into "press" coverages, they did so knowing they had safety help over the top, a gambit that allowed them to muscle the Indianapolis receivers and redirect their routes.
"We didn't want to give their receivers much freedom at all," said Pats linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "We got our hands on them and got their jerseys dirty."
Fact is, there were times the New England defensive backs played dirty as they kept their hands on the Indianapolis outside receivers. In general, the Patriots fought and clawed, and occasionally held. League director of officiating Mike Perreira, for sure, can expect a Monday phone call from Colts president Bill Polian or coach Tony Dungy about some of the extraneous contact that wasn't flagged on Indianapolis' last-gasp possession.
But whatever success was realized in the secondary -- with the Pats limiting Manning to just 23 completions in 47 attempts, allowing only one completion of more than 20 yards, and mostly suffocating the wide receivers -- definitely started upfront. There were a few stretches in which Indianapolis gashed the Pats with the running game, but those came when New England played wider gaps, and were in Cover 2 secondary looks with the safeties backed away from the line of scrimmage.
For about 80 percent of their 76 defensive snaps, the Pats played "nickel," with smaller and quicker down linemen. Typical of a game plan conjured up by Belichick, assisted ably by defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, the front four camouflaged its rushes so well that Manning was unable to unload the ball with his trademark alacrity.
And because Manning had to hold the ball, and often throw while backing away or while rolling to the right, he was forced into errors. In addition to his four interceptions, two of them coming from inside the New England 30-yard line, Manning was sacked four times. Three of the sacks were by backup Jarvis Green, who was part of a clever rotational mix upfront, and who now has five sacks in two postseason games this year.
Not surprisingly, the cryptic Belichick refused to acknowledge that part of his rationale in game-planning was a speed advantage against the Indianapolis offensive line, but several of the New England lineman allowed that was the case.
Said defensive lineman Richard Seymour, the Pro Bowl performer who has emerged as one of the NFL's top overall front four players, and who alternated between tackle and end: "With a guy like (Manning), you have to choose, either to rush or cover. We felt like we could rush him without going all-out. I'm not going to give away any state secrets, but we were confident we'd get to him, and with just a basic rush."
By unofficial count, the Pats brought more than four rushers on only two of the Colts' 51 pass plays, and many times pressured him with just three rushers. Two of Green's sacks came on three-man rushes. As difficult as it is to fool Manning, a quarterback whose tape study is unparalleled, there were definitely times he was confused. And the Colts line was flummoxed even more often.
There were occasions when the unheralded Vrabel, a defender of modest skills who has been put into position by Belichick and Crennel to be effective, aligned at nose tackle in the four-man front. In those situations, he usually would take one step forward, strike a blow at center Jeff Saturday, then quickly backpedal into a short-coverage zone. Twice he got back in time to make breakups on pass plays.
While he didn't blitz liberally, Belichick broke out a few zone-blitzes and rushed from unusual angles, anything to confound Manning and keep him on his heels both mentally and physically. The Pats also did a nice job protecting Wilson, the young free safety who had been victimized by Manning in a regular-season meeting of the two teams. And they had an expert plan to defuse wide receiver Marvin Harrison, whose three catches matched Law's three interceptions.
No one should have been surprised, said Rodney Harrison, that a defense which led the NFL in pickoffs and pass deflections in the regular season, stole four passes and batted away seven more.
"We're a thinking man's team," said Harrison, who snuffed out the Colts' first drive with an interception in the end zone and also registered 10 tackles. "And if you're going to try to think along with us, to match wits with Belichick, man, you're going to come out of the game with a headache."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.