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Jackie MacMullan

Maroney's night precisely what they needed

Email|Print| Text size + By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Columnist / January 13, 2008

FOXBOROUGH - He was silent for seven straight days, allowing him plenty of free time to take note of the gushing testimonials given on behalf of Jacksonville running backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew.

The tandem had completed a prolific regular season, culminating in Taylor's selection as a Pro Bowl replacement. They were, so many of us believed, the key to last night's AFC Divisional playoff game.

If Laurence Maroney grew tired of hearing about Jaguars running backs, or became weary of hearing everyone dismissing New England's running game as a second-rate venture, a decoy for the trio of Brady and Moss and Welker, he didn't let on.

"Why, were people talking about that?" he said, with a glint in his eye. "I didn't pay no mind to any of it."

That's because he had already made a decision earlier in the week when he waved off media inquiries: better to show everyone than tell them about it ahead of time.

Last night, in the biggest moment of his professional career, Maroney said all he needed to say on the football field. The second-year back rushed for 122 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries, providing the perfect balance to another night of laser precision from franchise quarterback Tom Brady.

The Patriots were able to advance to the AFC Championship game with a 31-20 win because their young running back provided the explosive counterbalance to Brady's passes underneath.

"We knew coming in we were going to have to run 12 to 15 offensive plays to win this game," explained fullback Heath Evans. "To be honest, it kind of unfolded the way we thought it would."

But, for New England to implement that strategy, they needed production from Maroney, who has weathered criticism this season for running too upright, and for trying to run east to west instead of points due north.

"There were times when he got busted for not producing when he was running the ball just fine," Evans said. "And, during times when he did have troubles, you saw Kevin [Faulk] talking with him, and [running backs coach] Ivan [Fears] talking with him, and you could see he was willing to be taught. He was willing to learn.

"For the first half of the year, Tom and his receivers got it done. But at the most important time of the year, Laurence stepped up."

On Brady's first clear attempt at kick-starting his team (his first snap resulted in a sack), he dumped the ball off to Maroney, who scooted 33 yards. That play was longer than any Taylor or Jones-Drew would conjure up all evening. It was one of many key plays Maroney would make throughout the night.

There was the third-and-1 call from the Jacksonville 10-yard line in the first quarter, one play after he had been stuffed for no gain. This time Maroney took the ball and churned, churned, churned his way toward the end zone as teammates Kyle Brady and Evans threw bruising blocks to clear his path. Maroney didn't get all the way to pay dirt on that play, but two handoffs later, he was standing in the end zone with the ball for his first career postseason touchdown.

It gave the Patriots a 14-7 lead, a welcome advantage after a stunning shot to the jaw from the upstart Jaguars, who scored on the first drive of the evening.

"We knew the passing game was going to have to work with the running game tonight," said Maroney. "The idea was to try and keep them thinking, keep them guessing.

"You knew sooner or later the running game was going to have to kick in. All of us running backs have been working hard every day, waiting for a chance to show what we've got."

Maroney finished the regular season having rushed 185 times for 835 yards and 6 touchdowns. He acknowledged he is feeling healthier and stronger after battling a persistent groin injury earlier this season.

"I feel a lot better, I can tell you that," he said.

Receiver Chad Jackson, one of Maroney's closest friends on the Patriots, said it has been difficult at times for Maroney to stay patient, to wait his turn to make his mark on this explosive offense, which has been all about throwing the ball early and often.

"He just wanted an opportunity, like any of us do," Jackson said. "And tonight he showed the whole world what he can do."

Who knows if Maroney's number will be called 22 times next week in the AFC Championship game? Coach Bill Belichick is better than just about anyone at taking what the opponent gives you, and calling upon his personnel to exploit it.

It's hard to imagine Randy Moss having another one-catch night. But Maroney hopes it's not hard to imagine him ripping off another 100-yard-plus game with the season on the line.

"I always feel good when I'm involved," he said, "whether it's running or passing or blocking."

He was asked if he tucked away the ball he carried on the first postseason touchdown of his career.

"You know what?" he said. "I don't know where that football went. I'll just grab a ball and say, 'This is it.' "

Last night, Taylor and Jones-Drew went home without any game balls, any touchdowns, or any hope of continuing their season. They are both terrific backs, but last night they were contained to 66 total yards (47 for Taylor, 19 for Jones-Drew). In fact, Maroney outrushed the entire Jaguars team, 122-80.

"I don't think [Laurence] probably had half the opportunities he would have hoped for [this season], but his role has been whatever he's got, and he's been extremely productive," lauded Brady. "And the way we've thrown the ball with multiple receivers on the field, it puts a lot of stress on the defense. field. Any time you have Randy and Wes [Welker] out there and Donte' [Stallworth] and Jabar [Gaffney] all making plays; really, Laurence, thank God, lost it there for a little bit, but he's obviously found his way."

On his way out the door, Maroney was asked one more time what it was like to upstage the touted running backs in the other locker room.

"They're still great," he said. "And hey, it's about the Patriots winning the game. It ain't about me."

It sure was last night, though.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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