|Patriots running back Laurence Maroney was a force in the second half, pounding the Chargers for 106 of his 122 yards. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)|
FOXBOROUGH - Laurence Maroney left Patriots fans dancing for joy, but he made sure he didn't rely on any dance moves himself.
Instead of trying to bob and weave through the line of scrimmage as he often appeared to do during the regular season, Maroney bulled through it yesterday, running 25 times for 122 yards and a touchdown to help New England beat San Diego, 21-12, at Gillette Stadium and win the AFC Championship.
"A lot of people said I had my tap dance shoes on," Maroney said. "I had to put my head down and power a couple of folks."
Maroney ran for 106 yards in the second half as the Patriots kept the ball for almost 22 of the final 30 minutes.
"Certain games, you need to do certain running styles," Maroney said. "I felt like this was a nice, physical defense and you have to match their physicalness. So you've got to put your head down and take what you can get."
Once Maroney did break through the line of scrimmage, he used cutbacks to pound out more yardage.
"Laurence has had good vision since day one," tackle Matt Light said. "It's our job to get him into the first line of defense and from there he makes a lot of big plays."
Before intermission, the second-year running back rushed for just 16 yards, but his 1-yard run put New England ahead, 7-3, at 13:48 of the second quarter. Maroney has scored at least one touchdown in each of his last five games.
"They started giving ground a little bit in the second half," Maroney said, "and we just kept pounding them and kept pounding them. Basically, them little 2-yard runs started breaking out to 8- and 10-yard runs."
With the Patriots clinging to a 14-12 lead, Maroney ran four times for 29 yards and caught a pass for another 9 yards to key an 8-play, 67-yard drive that ended with Tom Brady throwing a 6-yard touchdown pass to Wes Welker at 12:15 of the fourth quarter.
After a San Diego punt, Maroney and Kevin Faulk combined to eat up the final 9:13 of the game. Maroney had eight carries for 37 yards and Faulk caught three passes for 32 yards, including a diving grab for a key first down.
"I wish I could borrow his hands sometime," Maroney said. "He's got some big hands and he's got good eye-hand coordination. Sometimes I don't think he's going to get to the ball and magically he catches it."
Maroney and Faulk - who finished with eight catches for 82 yards - proved to be a one-two punch that knocked out the Chargers.
"They're both great with the ball in their hands," fullback Heath Evans said. "Kevin obviously has a wealth of knowledge about this game that I would die to have. Laurence is learning on the fly. He's been thrust into major role on a very good team and he's doing his job and he's learning fast."
Maroney matched the 122 yards he rushed for against Jacksonville in the AFC Divisional game. That total is the third-highest in Patriots playoff history.
"We heard the question about we didn't have a running game," Faulk said, "and all I told Laurence was, 'Be patient, your time is going to come and your opportunity is going to come to move this team forward.' That's what he's been doing the last couple of games in the playoffs and that's what we have to continue."
During the regular season, Maroney missed three games with a groin injury and averaged only 14 carries a game when he was healthy. Not having to carry a heavy burden kept him fresh for the playoffs.
"It did help," Maroney said. "I did feel good coming into the game, the legs felt good and I felt better than ever."
Maroney was happy to have his number called more yesterday.
"That's how any running back is," he said. "When you're feeling good and you break a couple good runs, you want to keep going, but you've got to stick with the game plan."
Up next is Maroney's first trip to the Super Bowl.
"There's a lot of excitement going through my body right now, going through by mind," he said. "I ain't never been to no Super Bowl, never played in one.
"So I'm just trying to stay calm right now."