FOXBOROUGH — If you had Shane Vereen pegged as the Patriots’ secret weapon in this one, well, hey, nice job helping Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels mastermind such an unexpected and successful game-plan. Might I suggest submitting your résumé for the Jets’ offensive coordinator opening?
Obligatory facetiousness aside, let’s now commence with the platitudes, starting with Vereen, the Patriots’ second-year running back out of Cal who submitted the performance of his young career last night in the Patriots’ 41-28 victory over the Houston Texans in their AFC Divisional round matchup.
Vereen, whose role was increased by an early thumb injury to versatile Danny Woodhead, scored three touchdowns (two receiving) while becoming the first Patriot since current teammate Deion Branch in the 2004 AFC Championship at Pittsburgh to have a rushing and receiving touchdown in the same postseason game.
The Patriots’ occasionally suspenseful victory capped an extraordinary weekend in the NFL, with the Broncos’ Peyton Manning faltering in the postseason again, the Niners’ Colin Kaepernick running past the beleaguered Packers seemingly at will, and the Falcons surviving the Seahawks.
The Patriots will now host the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game for the second straight year, and it should be a brawl. A sixth trip to the Super Bowl in the Belichick/Tom Brady is era at stake, not to mention a chance at ending Ray Lewis’s brilliant run of Hall-of-Fame-caliber linebacker play and astonishing gift for self-aggrandizement.
“It’s going to be a great matchup,” said Vereen, who was surrounded by a media swarm that spilled past a couple of teammates’ lockers. “It’s always between us and the Ravens.”
He finished with seven carries for 41 yards and five receptions for 83 yards, and the final numbers don’t seem to emphasize how well he played his large role on short notice.
“I don’t come into the game knowing how much anyone is going to play,” he said. “I come into the game ready to go and if my number is called I do my best.”
Vereen’s best was plenty good enough, but his was not the only superb performance. Brady became the winningest quarterback in postseason history, surpassing boyhood hero Joe Montana with a 17th career playoff win in which he threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns while expertly avoiding Texans pass-rusher extraordinaire J.J. Watt. Wes Welker had eight catches for 137 yards, and Aaron Hernandez contributed six catches for 85 yards. The trio were outstanding even by their usual high standards.
But Vereen’s was the most unexpected superb performance, given that he contributed exactly 400 yards (251 rushing, 149 receiving, or precisely 25 total yards per game) to the Patriots’ offense this season. He had flashes of explosiveness and potential in his sophomore season — an 83-yard touchdown reception in Week 12 against the Jets stands out — but after fumbling on his only touch against the 49ers in Week 15, he had just eight touches over the final three games.
“Shane had a great game,” said Brady. “Really just a huge growing-up moment for him, so special. There were a lot of guys that made a lot of plays, and we needed it.”
His resilience deserves acknowledgment. Patriots players, when faced with an injury to a teammate, often cite a next-man-up philosophy, and it’s something we’ll be hearing even more this week in the wake of the lousy news that Rob Gronkowski will miss the remainder of the postseason after reinjuring his left forearm/wrist last night. The next-man-up approach may seem callous, but it keeps them focused, and Vereen’s performance was that weathered cliche come to life. His opportunity arrived, and he seized it.
“We hate to lose Woody,” said Vereen. “He is such a key part of our offense, but at the same time all of the running backs hold ourselves accountable to step up when somebody does go down.”
Brady acknowledged that it took the Patriots offense a few possessions to find its bearings after losing both Woodhead and Gronkowski.
“We had a whole plan built for [Gronkowski] and Woody,” said Brady. “We run the first series of the game and all those plans change. I think a little bit of it was ‘What are we going to do now? How are we going to adjust?’ But we seemed to settle in there midway through the first quarter and put together a pretty good game. Obviously it’s a bummer to lose anybody, but someone of Rob’s importance or Danny’s importance, we need guys to step in and fill the void, whether it’s this game or any game after.
Vereen’s ability to step up and help the offense find its rhythm became evident in the first quarter — he contributed two crucial plays on the Patriots’ first scoring drive. Houston had jumped to a 3-0 lead before the smoke from the pregame fireworks cleared, settling for Shayne Graham’s 27-yard field goal three plays after Danial Manning’s 94-yard kickoff return put them on the doorstep. But on the Patriots’ third possession, Vereen’s 25-yard catch and run, which included a nifty spin move, took the ball from the Houston 40 to the 15 with 2:38 left in the first quarter. One 14-yard catch by Aaron Hernandez later, Vereen ran in from the 1 to put the Patriots up, 7-3, capping a six-play, 65-yard drive.
The Patriots never trailed again, in part because Vereen, who tied a season-high with 12 touches, never relented. On the Patriots’ next possession, Vereen accounted for 36 yards on three carries, with back-to-back carries totaling 30 yards coming when the Patriots sped up the pace to keep the Texans from getting extra defensive backs off the field. He also had a 12-yard catch on the drive, which culminated with a 37-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal to give the Patriots a 10-3 lead with 10:16 left in the second quarter.
Less than seven minutes later, there was Vereen again, putting the finishing touches on a seven-play, 80-yard drive with an 8-yard touchdown reception in which the Texans appeared to forget to account for him. Perhaps they were too fixated on Welker, who had six catches for 120 yards in the first half and must have given Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips at least a fleeting A.J. Green flashback with his 47-yard catch down the left sideline on the play previous to the score, which made it 17-3.
The Texans scored the final 10 points of the first half, including a Foster scoring run with 1:15 remaining and, after a sluggish three-and-out by the Patriots, a 55-yard field goal by Graham, who had missed his two attempts from beyond 50 yards during the regular season.
The Texans’ rally — and the Patriots’ apparent passivity on their final first-half possession, which contradicted the the foxhole mentality Belichick uncharacteristically espoused during the week — might have added an element of extra tension to the proceedings for those expecting a blowout. But it didn’t last. The Patriots eased nerves in living rooms throughout New England with a seven-play, 69-yard drive to begin the half, an Aaron Hernandez 40-yard catch-and-run setting up an eight-yard scoring run by Stevan Ridley to give the Patriots a 24-13 lead.
Brandon Lloyd’s 5-yard touchdown catch and another Vereen score — this one a spectacular catch covering 33 yards to put the Patriots up 38-13 — ended all real suspense, even as the Texans closed to within 10 with 5:11 left.
The Texans weren’t tomato cans, as the saying goes. But they were no match for Shane Vereen, and who saw that coming?