The Patriots have cradled eerily close to being what one would consider a running team in the past three weeks.
I know, it sounds weird.
In Saturday’s 43-22 win over the Indianapolis Colts, the Patriots ran for 234 yards of offense, letting Tom Brady (13 of 25, 198 yards) take a backseat to the action. They had 267 yards rushing against the Buffalo Bills in Week 17 and 142 yards on the ground in Week 16 against the Baltimore Ravens.
At this point in the season, after winning their AFC divisional playoff matchup against the Colts, it appears there is still quite a bit to learn about these Patriots. And, it appears, there is quite a bit the team is learning about itself.
Here’s what I saw Saturday:
1. Blount all day— We posited last week that LeGarrette Blount had earned the title of featured back on the team. Now we can say firmly that he has wrestled that title away from Stevan Ridley and taken the fortunes of this team on his back in doing so. He has given the team’s Super Bowl hopes more vigor. There’s no turning back now. With a franchise-tying 166 yards rushing and a franchise record four rushing touchdowns against the Colts, Blount has been more than the safety valve for a team that has suffered numerous injuries to its wide receivers group. He has helped set the tone on offense, breaking tackles and getting extra yardage. And he has done so now at the most critical juncture of the team’s season.
This all wouldn’t be possible had Blount not made some serious changes to his running style. The running back revealed that in order for him to be a better runner, he had to lower his pad level, a bit of advice Bill Belichick bestowed upon him during the regular season. When he started running at a lower pad level, he started to see the dividends immediately. That’s when he started breaking tackles and gaining extra yardage on plays.
“I wish he would’ve told me a long time ago,” Blount said. “I don’t know what would’ve happened.”
We’re sure the Patriots may have had a much more balanced approach as the season went along. And we’re also sure it wouldn’t have taken us until the postseason to declare him the team’s top back.
2. We now see what the Patriots see in Jamie Collins —Patriots veterans have been known to praise the rookie linebacker for his exceptional athleticism and talents. Bill Belichick has pointed to the plays he has made in special teams and the work he has done prior to being elevated to starter. On Saturday, we finally saw what all the hype was about.
Collins had six tackles, an interception, and a sack in what is easily the best game of his career. Both his sack and his interception were firsts for him.
“I don’t know why you guys are surprised that he plays like that,” teammate Dont’a Hightower said. “He’s a very gifted athlete. He’s a tremendous guy. He makes plays like that in practice all the time. In the Ravens game, the pick he almost had, he does that at practice. So whenever he doesn’t catch it, I don’t care how hard it falls or if he does three back flips, I expect him to catch it. But he played a helluva game and it’s something that I’m not surprised, anybody around here is not surprised. He’s a great dude.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with growth,” Hightower continued. “I think it’s just his time. They called his number, they threw at him, he read the route, the right coverage, he did everything the right way and he got rewarded for it.”
As the Patriots top draft choice in 2013, there’s quite a bit laid at Collins’ plate as far expectations go. But we now know, in the playoffs and with all eyes on the team’s tattered defense, he played some of his best football. That was evident for all to see. Finally.
3. A special performance —Tom Brady quipped post game that he hadn’t been the holder for a point after attempt since playing for Michigan in the Orange Bowl. That was 14 years ago.
The Patriots had the unfortunate luck of dealing with an injury in their special teams unit, causing a shuffling of the decks. Punter Ryan Allen, hurt on an errant snap over his head that turned into a safety, was knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury. He’s not only the team’s punter, but he’s also the holder for the team’s field goal unit.
With Allen out, Stephen Gostkowski took over punting duties and Brady did the holding on PATs.
“Maybe I’ll try renegotiating my contract or something for doing more work,” Brady joked.
It actually turned out well. Gostkowski had five punts for 209 yards, a 41.8 average, with a long of 53 yards. And the Patriots converted both of their PAT attempts with Brady as the holder in the fourth quarter.
“Stephen punts in practice and he’s done that before,” Belichick said. “Yeah, that was a great job. It was a great job; Brady holding, Gostkowski punting. That’s the kind of playoff football. Things like that happen. Guys get called on to do something maybe they haven’t done all year, haven’t done in several years and come through at a big time.”
Outside of Blount’s monster game, it was the most fantastic performance of the evening watching these two work in these “new” roles.
4. Luck’s turnovers prove disastrous for the Colts —After a regular season in which the Colts managed only 14 turnovers, Indianapolis managed to give away the ball eight times in the playoffs. Andrew Luck, in particular, threw four interceptions, forcing the ball at times where there was no open man.
But worst of all, two of his turnovers led to Patriots points. His first quarter interception, nabbed by Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, ended up becoming a 2-yard touchdown run by LeGarrette Blount as the Patriots took the early lead. His fourth quarter pick to Collins, when the Colts were down 36-22, led to Ridley’s 3-yard touchdown run and put the game out of reach. It was very similar to Luck’s last performance against the Patriots. Harried and harassed in his first encounter with New England, he threw three picks, two of which were brought back for touchdowns.
“Mistakes from the first quarter in the first series to the last series,” Luck said. “Turnovers were indicative to our game win for us — for me really — on my shoulders for throwing those picks. We just couldn’t overcome it. So it stinks.”
Nobody’s denying that.
5. The matchup everybody wanted to see — Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib played a good portion of the game on Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, a matchup that was worthy of top billing in a prize fight. The speedy receiver had just exploded for 224 yards receiving against the Kansas City Chiefs and the Patriots had spent the better part of a week singing his praises when preparing to face him. Hilton still managed four receptions for 103 yards on six targets. Either from the slot or split outside, he was able to outrun Talib in coverage, drawing attention from safeties Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty. Hilton caught a phenomenal pass for 46 yards, making it easy to see why he’s such a remarkable player. There wasn’t a passing down Saturday in which he didn’t face double or triple coverage, which may have led to LaVon Brazill’s two touchdowns, one for 38 yards while in one-on-one coverage from Dennard and another for 35 yards after getting behind McCourty and Gregory. An exceptional receiver like Hilton will always be problematic for the Patriots — problematic for any team — but they were still able to do enough to stunt Indianapolis’ passing game when it mattered. It helped that the defense forced four turnovers.