Smith steps up for Patriots

FOXBORO, Mass. -- Usually, the hugs don't last so long. But this occasion -- going to his second Super Bowl in three years -- was extraordinary. Tom Brady walked through the Patriots locker room and found dad Tom Sr., and the two kissed on the cheek and hugged. For one count. Then two. Then three. Finally, the son pulled away and with a stoked look said, "Can you believe it?"

Yeah, we can. And we'd better. After beating the Colts 24-14 in a snowy, wet Gillette Stadium, New England is winning on a level not seen in more than 30 years. Brady still has the boyish aura of a 26-year-old doing this for the first time, but behind that is a fire that nothing -- not Indianapolis, not winning a Super Bowl two years ago, not the fame that comes when you're quarterbacking football's best team -- has put out.

The Pats win ugly, but don't think for a moment that they actually enjoy winning ugly. Brady knew New England should have scored in the forties today. Kicker Adam Vinatieri tied a playoff record with five field goals, all of which were less than 35 yards. Two sure touchdown passes were dropped by tight end Christian Fauria, and Brady threw a bad interception in the end zone -- his first pick at home all year. It's hard to imagine that the well-coached Pats actually made the game close given how hot the Colts had been coming into the game. But that was exactly the case.

But these are the Patriots. Someone -- be it a player who was injured, forgotten, a backup, hell anyone -- always comes up. On Sunday it was running back Antowain Smith, who started the season on such an awful note that in the Patriots postseason media guide, under his highlights for Week 1, the only entry is, "Caught a 12-yard pass."

Smith has a new highlight: 22 carries for 100 yards against a Colts defense that didn't think it could be run on. Now, Smith is heading to Houston, where he went to college and calls home. "He said he wanted to get 100 on his way home," said tackle Matt Light. "He did."

Smith's numbers would have been better had he gained a yard in the fourth quarter. But when New England was trying to run out the clock, and everyone from Quincy to Providence knew Smith was getting the ball, he was stuffed. Still, he was out there, which seemed so unlikely earlier in the season.

He scored only one touchdown in the first five weeks and couldn't get playing time behind Kevin Faulk. Then, when he did finally play, he hurt his shoulder in Week 5 and was inactive for two games. Smith returned to the lineup but was deactivated when New England beat the Colts 38-34 on Nov. 11. As it seems to be every year, Smith -- who helped carry the Pats to a win over the Rams two years ago -- appeared to be the odd man out.

But after the Indianapolis game, he got 27 carries against Miami and then had 18 for 121 yards against the Jets. If anyone was fresh for the playoffs, it was Smith. "He always shows up later in the year," Light said. "And when that dude gets going, good things always happen."

Not always. Smith has been a key player in New England's two Super Bowl runs, but he's never accused of spending too much time in the weight room or film room. In the offseason, he cares more about dinner than conditioning, which is why Faulk had his job early in the season. When the topic of the game's best power backs comes up, the 6'2", 232-pound Smith has the talent to be listed but never is.

But in a weird way, that's why it makes perfect sense that Smith took over on Sunday. That's exactly what Bill Belichick does so well: Getting the best out of second-tier players.

Running a variety of "one gap" and "two gap" plays up the middle, Smith had back-to-back runs of 35 and 14 yards that set up Vinatieri's 27-yarder to make the score 18-7. The Pats knew they'd be able to run the ball on Indianapolis and with the ground wet, the big back dominated. "We wanted to try to keep Peyton (Manning) and the arsenal that he has over on the side," Smith said, later adding, "My teammates still believed in me. That's what counts."

Said Colts linebacker Rob Morris. "We just had those breakdowns and that gave them some big plays. It's the same story."

Actually, the same story was that the Pats won. Brady improved to 5-0 as a starter in the playoffs. After the game, after he pulled back from the hug, as he and Dad talked football and finalized dinner plans for the night, they embraced once more. Dad gave Tom a proud stare, the way fathers do, before his son left to meet the press. "He wanted this game so badly," Tom Sr. said. "Two years ago he didn't know how big it was. Now he knows."

So does the rest of the country. If you're tired of the jeans-and-ballcap Pats, tired of the sappy Brady scenes and crave a new champion, find something else to do Sunday afternoons. The Pats are here to stay. As if they needed any help, come April they have two first-round picks, two seconds, and three thirds.

"We've earned this," Brady said of his second Super Bowl appearance.

And now it's all there for the taking.

Seth Wickersham covers the NFL for ESPN The Magazine.