FOXBORO -- Aqib Talib couldn’t stop smiling.
The cornerback, who helped extricate running back LeGarrette Blount from Tampa Bay this past spring, was standing at his locker Sunday night in the moments after the Patriots beat the Bills, 34-20, to wrap up the second seed in the AFC. On a cold and soggy afternoon, New England put the game on the shoulders of Blount, and he responded with a career-high 189 yards on 24 carries, as well as two touchdowns.
And Talib couldn’t have been happier.
“That’s wonderful, man,” he said, while smiling at the phalanx of reporters across the locker room who surrounded Blount. “To have a day like that, a game like that, and with him being on the same team with me again, live right next door to me, I can’t do nothing but smile, man. That’s my dog.
“That’s probably the [best] friend I have in the NFL, right there.”
Talib and Blount share a long history together. They came into the NFL with the Buccaneers (Talib was drafted by Tampa in 2008, and Blount in 2010), and forged a bond while with the Bucs. After the Patriots acquired Talib in a deadline deal in 2012, New England had a chance to acquire Blount last spring. Patriots coach Bill Belichick called Talib, interested in seeing if the cornerback could provide a reference for his old pal.
“I just told him he was a great teammate, a great locker room player. And you’re going to see a lot of explosive plays from him,” recalled Talib. “That’s what I told him -- you’re going to get a lot of explosive plays from him, and he’s going to be great in this locker room. You’re not going to have a problem with him in this locker room.”
“That’s my dog, man. That’s my man,” Blount said of Talib. “I know he’s going to rock with me, every time. Every time I come off the field, that’s going to be one of the first people I see. I’ve known him since I’ve gotten into the league, and we’ve been close ever since.”
“Everything [Talib] said about him was absolutely right,” Belichick said. “[Blount is] a good football player who loves to play, works hard and is a team player; great guy for the team in the locker room.
“He’s been all those things.”
In a strange season, it’s been the work of the Tampa Two -- Blount and Talib -- who have helped lift the Patriots to the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a first-round bye. Talib has become one of the most important parts of the New England defense, working as one of the most complete corners since Ty Law left town and finishing the year with four picks while shadowing the likes of Jimmy Graham, Julio Jones, Roddy White, Vincent Jackson and A.J. Green.
Meanwhile, Blount has emerged as a potent force on the offensive side of the ball -- he finished the regular season with 153 carries for 772 yards and seven touchdowns, and provided some relief for a team that was struggling in the wake of the ball security issues suffered by Stevan Ridley. Those totals include his 189 rushing yards on Sunday against the Bills. Throw in his 145 yards as a kick returner, and his 334 all-purpose yards set a franchise record.
Blount joined Gale Sayers and Adrian Peterson as players who have topped 100 yards rushing and 180 yards worth of kick return yardage in the same game.
“[Peterson] returned kicks? I didn’t know that,” Blount said with a smile. “Tell AP to holler at me. Holler at me.”
On Sunday, Blount was able to run for a 36-yard touchdown in the first half, and add a 35-yarder in the second half. In between, he was his typically bruising self, averaging an absurd 7.9 yards every time he carried the ball.
“I feel like we had to man up and play tough football with the conditions, and whoever played better football physically is going to be the winner,” Blount said. “It was cold and rainy and hard for guys to keep their footing. We just went into the game with the mindset to run the football and play physical football, and that’s what we did.”
That work was augmented by his performance in the kicking game, helping tilt the field on two occasions with returns of 62 and 83 yards, the latter of which was the longest kick return of the year for the Patriots.
“Obviously it was a tremendous game by LeGarrette; clearly the best player on the field, he had a tremendous day,” Belichick said of Blount. “He did a great job so did the guys on the kickoff return team. We haven’t had a lot of big plays in that area during the year but over the past few weeks, we got a little spark there from Josh [Boyce] and certainly LeGarrette today.”
There are limits to their relationship -- Talib was asked after the game if Blount protects him, and he responded with a big laugh. “I don’t need no protecting. I don’t need nobody protecting me, man!” -- but New England’s Tampa Two has already experienced a lot together.
Now, they’ll get their first chance at the postseason as teammates. To paraphrase a former Jets linebacker, Talib can’t wait to tell his friend about the playoffs.
“It’s his first time touching the playoffs -- it’s exciting for him,” said Talib with a smile. “I’m just happy for him.”
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots on Sunday.
IT WASN’T GREAT, BUT THE DEFENSE MADE STOPS WHEN IT MATTERED
The New England defense held the Buffalo offense to three first-half points, and used that cushion when things got a little dicey in the second half. (On two occasions, the Bills cut the Patriots’ lead to seven, with the second time coming on a five-yard run from Fred Jackson with 10:20 left in the game to make it 24-17.) Overall, a look at the box score doesn’t reflect a terrific defensive effort, but on closer review, the Patriots were able to make important stops when they needed to. The Bills were a combined 4-for-16 on third and fourth downs, an impressive total for New England considering it was going up against the second-best running game in the league (145.2 rushing yards per game coming into the contest). Jackson (14 carries, 60 yards, one touchdown) and C.J. Spiller (19 carries, 105 yards) got their yards, but in the end, it wasn’t enough to knock off the Patriots, who picked up their 22nd win over the Bills in the last 24 games between the two teams.
SPECIAL TEAMS FIGURE TO PLAY A SIZABLE ROLE IN THE PLAYOFFS
The New England special teamers had a great day all around. Blount set a season-high with his 83-yard kick return, while Stephen Gostkowski put six of his seven kickoffs into the end zone and added four field goals -- from 43, 35, 29 and 35 yards -- to help boost an offense that got occasionally bogged down in the wet conditions. Special teams captain Matthew Slater had a couple of colossal blocks. Even Brady got into the act with a 32-yard surprise punt that ended up being downed at the Buffalo 20. (It was the third punt of his career.) It marked a terrific end to the regular season for the special teamers, who head into the postseason on an up note.
INJURIES ARE STILL AN ISSUE
The Patriots, who have been racked up several injuries over the course of the regular season, had a few scares Sunday against the Bills. Offensive lineman Logan Mankins went down with what the team called an ankle injury in the first half. After disappearing down the tunnel for a few moments, he returned, and took his regular reps at left guard with the rest of the offensive line. Mankins has a legendarily pain threshold (after all, this is a guy who went through the 2011 postseason with a serious knee injury), but he wasn’t seen in the locker room following the game. The Patriots also lost receiver Aaron Dobson (foot) early on when the rookie pulled up after finishing a deep route – he didn’t return. (Dobson had been dealing with a foot problem the last few weeks, so that may have been more of a case of better-safe-than-sorry.) And linebacker Brandon Spikes, who has struggled with a serious knee issue for most of the season, departed at the end of the game and didn’t return. Add those names to a list of players who are already playing through injury, a group that includes most of the secondary. Of all the Patriots’ playoff teams of the last decade, no team has needed the bye more than this one.
JULIAN EDELMAN WILL SPARK SOME REALLY GOOD DEBATE THIS OFFSEASON
Edelman became the first receiver not named Wes Welker to finish with at least 100 catches in a season in the New England system, and just the third receiver in franchise history to end the season with at least 100 catches. The former college quarterback ended his afternoon with nine catches on 11 targets for 65 yards, with his finest work coming on New England’s second drive of the afternoon, when he had three catches on a nine-play drive that ended with a 35-yard field goal from Gostkowski. Time and again over the course of the season, he was able to come away with big catches, and ended the season with 105 receptions for 1,056 receiving yards and six touchdowns -- career highs across the board. When you are compiling a list of players who exceeded expectations in 2013, it begins with Edelman, who will head into the offseason as an intriguing free-agent possibility for the rest of the league to consider.
TOM BRADY IS ALSO PRETTY GOOD AT HANDING THE BALL OFF
It was another weird statistical outing for the quarterback, who ended up 14-for-24 for 122 yards, with one sack, one touchdown pass and one interception. To be fair, it was an absolutely miserable day to throw the football -- maybe the second-worst day of the season, weather-wise, behind the monsoon in Cincinnati. But Brady is no fool -- he spent much of his afternoon turning around and handing the ball off to Blount, Ridley and Shane Vereen. The 43 rushing attempts were a season-high for the Patriots, who averaged 6.2 yards per carry every time they ran the ball. (To that point, New England attempted just seven passes in the second half.) Brady’s finest drive of the day came at the end of the first and start of the second quarter, when he engineered a seven-play, 94-yard series that saw Blount account for 68 of the 94 yards. While much of the credit for the backfield production should go to Blount, it was a total team effort: Blount’s stat line came as the result of 32 snaps, while Stevan Ridley had 12 carries for 74 yards (his best output since being benched earlier this month against the Texans) on 21 snaps and Vereen had three catches for 42 yards and two carries for three yards on 16 total snaps.
THE OFFENSIVE LINE LOVES TO RUN BLOCK
For a positional grouping that has taken its lumps over the course of the season, the New England offensive line certainly ended the 2013 campaign on a positive note. They limited the best pass rush in the league (Buffalo entered the contest with a league-best 56 sacks) to just one sack on the afternoon, and did a good job keeping Brady clean. Some of that was due to the fact that, at least early on, the Patriots appeared to go big, with multiple tight end sets, as well as a healthy dose of fullback James Develin, in hopes of trying to match the Bills physicality. At first glance, two things jumped off the page about the play of the offensive line: one, the unit appeared to bounce back nicely after having to patch things together on the fly the last few weeks. Left tackle Nate Solder, who missed last week against the Ravens with concussion issues, was back on the field and went wire-to-wire without an issue against the Bills. And two, they appeared to take great delight in being able to run block against the Bills. They helped clear the way for a season-best 267 rushing yards -- it was no surprise to hear Blount after the game go out of his way to praise the work of the offensive line. Asked if his ability to run to daylight was the key to his success, Blount quickly responded, “No, it was our offensive line. They blocked tremendously. They had an amazing game. It was one of our best games by our offensive line,” he said. “They definitely came through for us big-time today. You can’t say enough about those guys -- they’re tough.”
THEY COULD REALLY HAVE SOMETHING IN SEALVER SILIGA
Few players have come on as strongly over the second half of the season on either side of the ball than Sealver Siliga, who went from the Niners to the Broncos to the Seahawks before being signed to the New England practice squad of Oct. 23. After a month on the practice squad, the young defensive lineman was added to the active roster on Nov. 27, and since then, he’s seen a steady increase in playing time. While the final snaps counts for Sunday’s game aren’t yet available, the 23-year-old out of Utah was an impressive presence in the middle against the Bills. He finished with a team-high nine tackles (five of them solo), as well as one sack (for 13 yards, his third of the year) and one forced fumble. Siliga certainly hasn’t re-invented the position, but he’s provided a boost for the defensive line at a time where New England really needed some help.
THEY’VE PLAYED IN PRETTY MUCH ANY CONDITIONS YOU CAN IMAGINE THIS SEASON, OTHER THAN SNOW
As we previously stated, Sunday’s game was played under some of the nastiest conditions of the year. The awful rainstorm in Cincinnati in September was at least in relatively warmish conditions -- on Sunday, there was a steady rain all afternoon, and the temperature was in the 30s for most of the contest. The slick conditions made ball security an issue for both sides. The Patriots fumbled the ball four times (none were lost, and for what it’s worth, none of the fumbles were committed by Ridley), and Vereen bobbled a pass from Brady that ended up going as an interception. Nothing that ended up fazing them too much, but in the end, good practice for what could be some difficult conditions down the road.
THE GAME WILL NOW CHANGE
“It’s a one-game season [now]. It’s all or nothing,” cautioned defensive end Rob Ninkovich after the game, and he’s right. Now that the postseason has arrived, the urgency is kicked up a notch, and a whole new level of seriousness enters the picture. The Patriots will have a few days to reflect on a 2013 regular season that was a remarkable run -- 11 of the 16 games were decided by seven or less points, a 12-4 record and the second overall seed in the AFC, despite an unreal run of injuries to key players like Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Sebastian Vollmer and Rob Gronkowski. But after that’s done (as well as some self-scouting on the part of the coaching staff and front office), the playoffs begin. New England will host a divisional playoff game on Jan. 11 at 8:15 p.m. The real work now begins.