Tom Brady matched a playoff record to lead a New England victory and San Francisco made a triumphant playoff return after nine years on Saturday as both teams moved within a victory of the Super Bowl.
Brady became only the third NFL player to throw for six touchdowns in a playoff game as the Patriots ripped Denver 45-10 and Alex Smith threw for three touchdowns and ran for another to spark San Francisco over New Orleans 36-32.
Both teams advanced to conference championship games on Sunday, needing to win this weekend to reach Super Bowl 46 on Feb. 5 in Indianapolis.
“It’s a one game season,” Brady said. “It’s all about next week for us.”
Brady powered the host Patriots to their ninth victory in a row, with Denver rookie quarterback Tim Tebow unable to reproduce the magical performance that powered the Broncos to an upset of Pittsburgh last week.
“There are things we could have done better but we played pretty well,” Brady said. “Our skill guys had a great day. The offensive line played great. The defensive was solid. We started pretty fast. It was a big win for us.”
Brady threw a 17 yard touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez 3:14 into the third quarter to match the all-time record of six touchdown tosses in a playoff game set by Daryle Lamonica in 1969 and matched by Steve Young in Super Bowl 29.
It also gave the Patriots their highest point total in any playoff game and led to their most lopsided playoff victory, surpassing the old margin of 25 points.
New England’s Rob Gronkowski also matched an NFL record with three touchdown catches in a playoff game. He caught 10 passes in all for 145 yards.
“We played great,” Gronkowski said. “It was huge.”
Brady completed his first eight passes, including a 7 yard touchdown toss to Wes Welker and a 10 yard touchdown to Gronkowski, to give the Patriots a 14-0 lead.
Denver answered on Willis McGahee’s 5 yard touchdown run to open the second quarter.
However, Brady responded with a 12 yard touchdown throw to Gronkowski, a 61 yard touchdown pass to Deion Branch and a 19 yard touchdown toss to Gronkowski with five seconds to play in the second quarter for a 35-7 Patriots halftime lead.
Brady’s five first-half touchdown passes broke Peyton Manning’s 2003 NFL record by one and the second half was only about settling the final margin.
In San Francisco, Smith tossed a 14 yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with nine seconds remaining to give the 49ers the deciding points and a victory in their first playoff game in nine years.
“I had to take it upon myself to step up and make plays,” Davis said. “I had to step up and make it happen to get myself and my teammates where we want to go. The opportunity came and I took advantage of it.”
The Saints, 11-1 indoors this season, but only 3-3 outdoors, committed five turnovers as single-season record-setting passer Drew Brees and the NFL’s top offensive unit could not advance.
Smith completed 24-of-42 passes for 299 yards, while Brees completed 40-of-63 passes for 462 yards and four touchdowns in a losing cause.
“You have to hand it to their team and the way they battled,” Brees said. “That was two great teams who know how to win going at it and unfortunately only one can win.”
The lead changed hands four times in the final minutes, starting when Brees connected with Darren Sproles, who set an NFL playoff record with 15 catches for 119 yards, on a 44 yard touchdown pass that put New Orleans ahead 24-23.