FOXBORO (CBS) — Because the coach and quarterback have not changed for more than a decade, and because that duo brought three championships to the region early in their careers here, it’s sometimes assumed that the Patriots have a championship pedigree year in and year out, no matter who wears the jerseys without the number 12 on the front and back.
That is not necessarily the case, though, and it is often forgotten that very few members of the Patriots have championship resumes. In fact, 22 Patriots entered Saturday night’s game against the Colts having never stepped foot on an NFL field in the postseason, so there was no way of predicting how they’d all react to the added pressure.
The final score of 43-22 answered that question rather emphatically.
The Colts, fresh off one of the largest comebacks in NFL history in their playoff opener last week, tested the Patriots for most of the night. Twice, the Colts took possession late in the third quarter needing just a touchdown to tie the game at 29. But the New England defense held on both occasions, and then one man making his playoff debut made his presence known.
LeGarrette Blount, who already had found the end zone three times at that point, took a handoff and ran through the right side of the line. He saw a sliver of daylight, and he hit the hole at full speed, bursting past every white jersey and not stopping until he crossed the goal line 73 yards later. With that one play, Blount took all the tension out of Gillette Stadium, and when rookie linebacker Jamie Collins intercepted Andrew Luck on the Colts’ very next play, the party was on in New England.
“I’m loving it,” Blount said after he finished the night with 166 yards and a Patriots franchise record four touchdowns. “To come out here and get this win against a great Colts team, it just shows you how good our team can be.”
While the final score indicated the game was a laugher, the game was actually very much in doubt for the Patriots all the way into the fourth quarter. The defense struggled at times to defend the deep ball, and Luck launched some picture-perfect passes to keep the pressure on New England.
The Patriots were also playing without their punter, Ryan Allen, who was injured while trying to make a play on a high snap from Danny Aiken which resulted in a safety. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski filled in admirably, and he was put to use as the Patriots’ offense went into hibernation with three consecutive three-and-outs. Allen’s absence even forced Tom Brady to hold the football on kicks, something he said he hasn’t done since college.
“Look, it’s that time of year,” Bill Belichick said. “We all know we only have 46 active guys so everybody has to back up somebody and you just never know how those are going to come out. You have to have everybody ready, and they were. They were, they did a good job. They were called on unexpectedly and they did a good job.”
They helped plug the gaps and limit the damage before the run by Blount and the interception by Collins — both postseason newbies — swung the game entirely in the Patriots’ favor.
Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, playing in just his third career postseason game, made an early impact by intercepting Luck on just the third play of the game and returning it to the 2-yard line to set up an early, easy score. He iced the victory too, when he again picked off Luck (the quarterback’s fourth of the night), this time with 40 seconds left on the clock.
“He’s done a good job for us,” Belichick said of Dennard. “He wasn’t able to play here for a couple weeks. He’s kind of been in and out of the lineup a little bit for the last six weeks or so but he’s had a real good two weeks of practice and obviously did a good job today.”
Receiver Danny Amendola was also playing in his first postseason game, and he came through with the longest reception of the night. With the Pats running 25 rushing plays and just 12 passing plays in the first half, the opportunity for a play-action pass was there for Josh McDaniels’ offense. On a first-and-10 from his own 12-yard line, Brady faked a handoff and let a deep ball fly to Amendola, who got behind the whole defense and hauled in the pass for 53 yards. The play broke up that ugly stretch of offensive ineptitude, and shortly thereafter, thanks to a touchdown and two-point conversion from Stevan Ridley, the Patriots once again owned a two-possession lead.
Even relative unknown Kanorris Davis, signed off the practice squad prior to Week 17’s game against the Bills, made an impact, as he tackled Griff Whalen for a 3-yard loss on a punt return to pin the Colts deep in their own territory.
Belichick, who’s just about seen it all at this point of his NFL career, did not give the impression that he was surprised to see his players step up on the postseason stage. That was especially the case with Collins, whose work on special teams this season helped him earn playing time on defense.
“First of all, he’s worked very hard. He’s been very dependable and durable. He hasn’t missed anything all year,” Belichick said of Collins. “He’s a very versatile athlete that’s smart, works hard, really has a great team attitude. I love having him on our team. He brings a lot. He doesn’t want to come off the field, even when he’s playing defense he wants to be out there in the kicking game.”
The Patriots know that they have Brady at quarterback, and though the quarterback played well on Saturday, he did not have to shoulder the heaviest load. That the team can win without needing Brady to do it all means the Patriots are rounding into perfect playoff form, with a running game and defense that can make the plays when necessary. That hasn’t been the case all year long, but it’s happening now at just the right time.
“I think you have to have defense, you have to have a running game, and you also have to have an offense that’s playing together,” said Ridley, who ran for 52 yards and two touchdowns. “Our team is really working together.
“This year, we have a group of guys that has been through a lot,” Ridley added. “This team’s been through a lot. From the beginning all the way through now, we’ve been through a ton. But we found a way to win. People sit there and try to count us out, but we’ve got a tremendous coaching staff, and we’ve got guys that are hungry and wanting to play, and that’s what you need if you want to get to where we want to get to and trying to be playing in February.”
One more complete effort from the top of the roster to the bottom, and the Patriots will be right there.