FOXBOROUGH -- There were just under 9 1/2 minutes to go in the third quarter yesterday when Patriots running back Corey Dillon broke free and ambled toward the end zone with San Francisco defenders Dwaine Carpenter and Ronnie Heard grabbing and clawing and pulling at his jersey. They finally hauled Dillon down at the 14-yard line, but not before he gained 29 yards.
That's all he needed. Dillon dropped the football and headed for the sideline without so much as a glance back at his quarterback, receivers, or offensive line. His job was done. He put his team in position to score, and he scored a little something in the process.
With that jaunt up the middle, Dillon surpassed 1,600 yards for the season, thus reaching an incentive clause in his contract that pays him $375,000. In the process, he had deftly set up Tom Brady's 8-yard strike to Deion Branch that gave New England a 14-7 lead in a game that had no playoff ramifications.
Dillon returned to the game at the start of the fourth quarter, when Rohan Davey checked in to replace Brady. Aside from a few tosses against Cleveland and mopup duty against Buffalo Nov. 14 and Baltimore Nov. 28, Davey's job has been to look splendid along the sidelines cheering Brady to victory. No wonder coach Bill Belichick allowed Davey to eliminate the jitters by handing off the first couple of times to one of the most successful running backs in the NFL this season.
Dillon banged it in for another score from 6 yards out, then went to the sideline for good, having gained 116 yards.
His regular-season totals include 1,635 rushing yards and nine games of 100 yards or more, which tied the franchise record set by Curtis Martin in 1995.
When Dillon left Cincinnati, he agreed to rip up a contract that would have paid him $3.3 million outright and he signed an incentive-laden deal with the Patriots that started with a base salary of $1.75 million. He would get a $100,000 bonus if he rushed for 700 yards, $150,000 more if he rushed for 850, another $375,000 for 1,000, another $375,000 for 1,200, and the extra $375,000 for 1,600.
He repeatedly has refused to acknowledge the perks in his contract, and that continued yesterday.
"The whole week all the talk was about the incentives," Dillon said. "I didn't want to focus on that. I didn't care if I did get it, and I didn't care if I didn't get it. I didn't want to blow it out of proportion.
"It's not like I was out there counting yards. Turns out I got it -- oh, well. It was not on my list of things to do this Sunday, to get 81 yards."
Was that lip service from a player going out of his way to adhere to the team-first policy of the Patriots? Probably. Count me among those who find it impossible to believe Dillon did not know he had reached that milestone on that 29-yard run. His actions suggested otherwise.
But here's the real point: So what if Dillon did care about the incentives? Why shouldn't he? If he didn't care, he never would have agreed to such incentive clauses in the first place. There's no crime in wanting to succeed individually within a team game, particularly if there are some Benjamins attached.
The only time playing for the money is a negative is when it adversely affects your team. No such thing happened yesterday. Belichick, you can be sure, wouldn't allow it.
"Hey, the guy deserved it," said offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi. "He should be able to get it. He's been a great new addition to our offense."
Asked how aware the team was of Dillon's milestone, Andruzzi said, "We were aware of it going into the game, but it's not like we were out there keeping stats. At one point, someone turned around and said he had 100 yards. I said `Great.' It's a reflection on the whole offense."
The best argument against playing Dillon in a meaningless game is that he would be able to rest his nagging injuries. That, however, would seem to require resting Brady and Troy Brown and Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest and all the other key players who have bumps and bruises. None of them was given that luxury yesterday.
"We played people like we normally played them," said Belichick.
You can scream all you want that Dillon shouldn't be thinking about incentives. What's $375,000 to a pro athlete, anyway? I'll tell you what it is. It's money Dillon won't be earning when he's retired from pro football a few short years from now. The average career of an NFL player is around 3.5 years. Dillon already has beaten those odds. He's in his eighth pro season, and for the most part he has been able to avoid serious injury. This is the time for the big payday, and he's grabbing it for all it's worth. I say good for him.
You want to sniff at $375,000? You can only do that if it's your $375,000.
Naturally, Dillon was not interested in discussion like that yesterday. He still was steaming from two gaffes he committed early in the game: a pass from Brady he caught then fumbled, and another pass he tipped into the hands of Carpenter for a 49ers interception.
"I'm not proud of that," he said. "I was too lackadaisical out there. I felt weird out there. I just had to sit down and get my head together."
He has two weeks off to prepare for his first playoff experience. In the meantime, he received a number of bear hugs and congratulations from his grateful teammates, who know Dillon has been worth every penny he's earned.
Speaking of money, be advised that if Dillon is named to the All-NFL first team and the team wins the conference championship, he's in line for another $100,000. Also, if Dillon is named the Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl and the Patriots win it, he will collect $200,000.
Either way, New England's most prolific running back for a season already is in the money, and the Patriots already are in the playoffs.
Sounds like everyone has cashed in to me.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.