It would be difficult to roll into the postseason with more momentum than that of Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount.
Looking to play in his first postseason game, the big back is coming off a career day in which he almost single-handedly carried New England to the 34-20 victory in the season finale against the Bills to secure the No. 2 seed in the AFC East and a first-round playoff bye.
Blount finished the game with a career-best 189 yards rushing on 24 carries for an impressive 7.9-yard average. He scored on runs of 35 and 36 yards.
But his contributions weren’t limited to his carrying the ball out. Blount also hit for kickoff returns of 83 and 62 yards in the third quarter to set up Patriots’ scores and ensure the Bills didn’t pull off the comeback.
Blount’s performance in the rainy conditions set a Patriots record for all-purpose yards with 334 yards, breaking a 50-year-old mark by more than 60 yards (Larry Garron totaled 273 in 1962, including 100 rushing and 173 in returns)
“Obviously it was a tremendous game by LeGarrette; clearly the best player on the field, he had a tremendous day,” Bill Belichick raved after the win. “He carried the team on his back most of the day.”
A day later, after sleeping on his team’s spot in the divisional round of the playoffs and Blount’s big day, Belichick was still effusing praise.
“LeGarrette brought a little bit of a different style in terms of downhill power. He slipped a couple tackles but he ran through a lot of them too,” Belichick said. “I think a lot of it just gets down to fundamentals: body lean and just good fundamentals of running including ball protection, body lean, trying to keep the tacklers from getting to your legs and keeping those moving, playing with a low center of gravity and good forward body lean and ball security. LeGarrette did that on a number of occasions, both offensively and in the kicking game (with) those kickoff returns.
“He’s a hard guy to tackle in good conditions but when everything is wet — when he’s wet, when the tacklers are all wet and they can’t grab onto anything — tackling can be very challenging those conditions. Not so much because of the footing, although that’s part of it, but the actual tackling sometimes is like trying to tackle, hold onto something that’s all greased up. It’s just hard to get a grip on it.”
Now the question is whether Blount’s big day — which came on the heels of a previous season-high of 76 yards in a win at Baltimore — is a trend for a Patriots offense that has been evolving this the season given many injuries and changes in personnel.
New England finished 2013 with the NFL’s No. 7 passing attack and No. 9 rushing attack. Heading into the bye week and the subsequent home playoff game, will that running game be counted on to continue to take an increased role in the postseason?
The offensive line has been vocal about wanting to be physical and get the chance to carry the load as the Patriots have churned out 34 and 43 carries impressive victories in the last two weeks respectively.
Blount has averaged better than 4.3 yards per carry in seven of the last eight games New England has played. And he’s obviously ready if a Patriots offense that’s generally been pass-first, pass-often in the recent run of the Brady era looks to be a little more ground based this January.
“I like touching the ball no matter what the weather is,” Blount said of his work Sunday and the potential for more bad-weather running in the coming weeks. “I’m not going to argue with them if they want to give it to us.”
If he can run like he did Sunday evening he’ll keep getting those chances. And the Patriots will likely keep winning.
Edelman finishes strong
Wide receiver Julian Edelman finished the season the same he played all year — as the only consistent, productive member of the Patriots passing game. Edelman caught a game-high nine passes for 65 yards, hauling in more than half of Tom Brady’s 14 completions in the wet, windy conditions.
Edelman finished the year leading New England with 105 receptions for 1,056 yards with six touchdown receptions, becoming just the third player in franchise history to surpass 100 receptions and the 10th eclipse 1,000-yard receiving.
Still, the fifth-year receiver and converted college quarterback deferred celebrating his personal accomplishments to a later date as he focuses on the team goals that lie ahead.
“It’s cool and everything, but you really go out and you play for other things, like playing in the last game of the year and winning that game,” Edelman said. “We put ourselves in an opportunity to go one step closer to that. It is definitely kind of cool, just with the road; it’s been a crazy road. It’s definitely been kind of cool.”
Mankins plays despite injury
Left guard Logan Mankins needed members of the Patriots medical staff to help him to the sideline due to an ankle injury in Sunday’s win over the Bills. The Pro Bowler then retreated to the locker room with what certainly appeared to be a significant injury. But the man who once played nearly a full season on a torn ACL, returned to action later in that quarter and finished the game.
After the victory, Tom Brady said there is nobody he ever played with who is tougher than Mankins. A day later Bill Belichick said similar things in regards to his top offensive lineman, who left Gillette Stadium in a walking boot after gutting out the victory.
“I agree with Tom in terms of toughness,” Belichick said of Mankins. “I’ve coached a lot of tough guys. I don’t think there’s any that I would put ahead of him; maybe some on that level but none ahead. Anytime Logan needs help getting off the field, you feel like it’s something serious. Usually he ends up just staying out there but for him to need assistance getting off the field was definitely a concerning moment.
“Then when (head athletic trainer) Jim Whelan came back and told me, as you mentioned, after the next series that Logan was back, I was a little bit surprised to hear that. He’s a tough individual, tough-minded, physically and mentally tough. It was an incredible performance.”