FOXBORO (CBS) — Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Patriots are heading to the AFC Championship Game.
It’s the third straight trip to the conference title game for the Pats, who beat the Ravens two years ago to advance to the Super Bowl but lost last season to the same Baltimore team. This year, they won’t have to worry about Baltimore, but they will have the chance next weekend to play with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
But before moving on to next week, let’s take a quick look back at the Four Ups and Four Downs from Saturday’s 44-23 win over the Colts. (Spoiler alert: There may not be four downs.)
In his first playoff game, LeGarrette Blount picked up right where he left off in the regular season. The fourth-year running back was once again unstoppable, tying a Patriots franchise playoff record with 166 rushing yards and finding the end zone four times.
Blount’s first three touchdowns were of the hard-running, two-yard variety, but his fourth put his surprising burst on display, as he broke free at the line of scrimmage and ran to daylight for a 73-yard touchdown scamper. No Colts player came anywhere near stopping him or catching up to him, and it proved to be the backbreaker.
Even better: Blount’s style of running gives the Patriots a rather encouraging element as the team moves on to the next round. With a cold-weather game in store next week, and the possibility of making it to the Super Bowl in New York, Blount has shown he’s willing and ready to carry the load.
The Patriots ran for six touchdowns total, with Stevan Ridley picking up the two that Blount didn’t score. Ridley’s known more for his speed and elusiveness than his straight-up, power running, but he earned some tough yards on the goal line on his scores. He also came through with a two-point conversion when he barreled through a whole host of bodies at the goal line.
Here’s visual proof of how tough those yards were to gain:
And here’s more:
He finished the night with a modest 52 yards on 14 carries, but the team showed confidence in him to carry the ball in big spots, and he rewarded them in a big way. What was said about Blount providing an encouraging element for the Patriots can be echoed for Ridley.
With Brandon Spikes placed on IR earlier this week, it was a fair question to wonder who — if anyone — would take his place in the middle of the Pats’ defense. Rookie linebacker Jamie Collins stepped up in a big way to answer it.
The second-round pick from last April played an aggressive, confident game, and he disrupted Andrew Luck and the Colts offense all night long. He finished the night with three solo tackles, three assists on tackles, a sack and an interception, and those stats only tell part of the story of Collins’ impact.
The Patriots take pride in the “next man up” mantra, and Collins embodied its message on Saturday.
The kicker was 0-for-0 on field-goal attempts on the night, so why does he earn a spot in the “Ups” category? That’s because he proved that “next man up” was not a cliche, as he filled in for punter Ryan Allen, who suffered a shoulder injury while getting crushed by a pair of Colts on a high snap on a punt.
Gostkowski said he’s never punted seriously in his life, and even his work in practice has been very rare, but he filled in admirably. He averaged 36.6 yards per punt, getting two inside the 20 and hitting a long of 56 yards.
He said after the game that he got lucky, but that was just an added dose of modesty from a man who proved he has some skills in addition to being a Pro Bowl kicker.
Extra Point: Tom Brady
Given how dominant the running game was, the quarterback wasn’t asked to do much. Tom Brady still posted efficient passing numbers (13-for-25, 198 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs), but he earned recognition in this space for something we haven’t seen him do perhaps ever — holding field goals.
The other ripple effect to Allen’s injury was that the team was left without its usual holder for Gostkowski. That was no problem for the Patriots, as Brady — one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game — assumed the role of the last man on the active roster. He held on a pair of PATs by Gostkowski, both successful, and most importantly he escaped with all of his fingers intact.
It’s tough putting any type of negative spin on the game, but the long snapper’s mistake in the second quarter nearly proved very costly.
The Patriots’ punting unit ran onto the field late in the play clock, looking to catch the Colts by surprise on a fourth-and-2. Instead, they seemingly caught themselves off guard, as the punting unit took a delay of game penalty. After the five-yard penalty, Aiken’s snap sailed high over Ryan Allen’s head and bounced all the way inside the 5-yard line. There, Allen picked it up and unsuccessfully tried to pass the football while getting clobbered by two Colts.
Fortunately for the Patriots, Allen’s fumble went through the back of the end zone, giving the Colts a safety instead of a chance for a touchdown. Still, that type of mistake happening again in the playoffs may prove to hurt the Patriots much more.
(That’ll do it for the “Downs.” Most teams are happy just to make the playoffs, so to pick nits after the Patriots win by 21 points wouldn’t be a very prudent thing to do.)