FOXBORO -- The Patriots didn’t wear their throwbacks uniforms this year, but Saturday night would have been a good time to bust out a vintage New England jersey from 2001, 2003 or 2004.
In fact, dig out that Antowain Smith jersey from storage, or find that Corey Dillon gamer that was sitting in the back of the closet. Find a Mike Vrabel shirt on eBay. Put them alongside your LeGarrette Blount gamer, your Logan Mankins T-shirt or the Aqib Talib poster, because this 2013 team has earned a spot next to those black-and-blue Patriots teams of a decade or so ago -- teams that identified the goal, understood what it took to get there and then went out and outmuscled their opponents to come away with the win.
In the end, all that was missing Saturday night was the old natural grass at Gillette Stadium turning to a muddy mess in the wake of a surprise January monsoon. It all came together for the Patriots, as they used a game plan right out of a decade or so ago: smart, tough, timely and balanced football that allowed them to capture a 43-22 divisional playoff win over the Colts and advance to their third straight AFC title game.
There were a few hairy moments, particularly when Andrew Luck cut the lead to seven at one point in the second half. But save for a brief dip offensively and a couple of ill-timed special teams errors, New England was impressive in all three phases of the game for most of the night. In the end, it was good enough to get them into the NFL’s final four again.
“Everybody was ready to go,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “I’m really proud of our football team, and looking forward to moving on to a bigger game next week.”
“It was a great win. It was great to be a part of a team win like that -- everybody contributed,” added quarterback Tom Brady. “The games only get bigger, so it will be a fun week to get ready. You don’t take it for granted and try to go play our best game next weekend.”
Maybe it wasn’t a surprise that old warhorse Willie McGinest was in the house. The Patriots took a page from the McGinest teams of old -- on Saturday, the Patriots brought an attitude that could have arrived via a time machine from a decade or so ago. They were mean, tough, physical and nasty -- not unlike the 2003 and 2004 teams that were able to effectively dismantle a highly touted Indy team in the foul New England weather. The Patriots ran the ball consistently, got four big turnovers and made big stops at the right time -- Indy’s last five drives went three-and-out, punt (after 12 yards), interception, three-and-out, interception.
It harkened back to the days of Ty Law picking off Peyton Manning on a regular basis, Tedy Bruschi swiping the ball from Dominic Rhodes and Corey Dillon beasting past Indy defenders on the way to the second level to help control the tempo. Only this time around, the heroes had names like Alfonzo Dennard (two of the four picks), Jamie Collins (one sack, one interception) and LeGarrette Blount (24 carries, 166 yards, four touchdowns.) And while they don’t have the resume of their predecessors, the 2013 Patriots won a playoff game against an old foe Saturday with the same snarling approach: Be mean, be physical and control the game at the line of scrimmage.
Meet the new Pats. Same as the old Pats.
“We didn’t know that we [were] going to be able to dominate,” said Blount, who set a franchise mark for rushing touchdowns in a game. “Our game plan was to play tough and play physical and go out there and get a win by any means necessary.
“And if we weren’t able to run the ball, we've always got [Brady], who’s going to put the team on his back and do great things like he’s always done in his whole career.”
While there were several standouts on both sides of the ball for the Patriots, the star Saturday -- as has been the case for the last month or so -- was Blount. He averaged 6.9 yards per carry, and while he had a pair of first-quarter touchdown runs, his highlight came at the start of the fourth quarter when he had a 73-yard burst to the end zone to give New England a two-touchdown edge. He demonstrated against the Colts that he’s the closest thing the Patriots have to a pure wrecking ball, a throwback running back who can deliver a blow in style.
And like Dillon, once Blount gets past that first wave of would-be tacklers, he’s capable of turning bold men into cowards pretty quickly.
“Man, he grabs another gear from somewhere and he starts moving, and you know none of those safeties and corners want to tackle him,” marveled veteran offensive lineman Logan Mankins, who doesn’t seem to be impressed by much. “They’re not going to tackle him when it’s one-on-one with him out there with no one else around.”
Blount’s emergence has allowed the Patriots to go retro over the last month-plus, creating an offensive juggernaut that has proven tough to stop. Since the Dec. 8 win over the Browns, the Patriots running game has been on a steady rise -- in that first one, they ran the ball 21 times. However, that number has increased since then, going to 22 carries (Dec. 15 vs. Miami), 34 (Dec. 22 at Baltimore), 43 carries (Dec. 29 against Buffalo) and 46 carries (Saturday against the Colts). All the rushing numbers have spiked in that span, including total rushing yards and yards per carry. (Meanwhile, in that same stretch, the passing attempts went from 52 against the Browns to 25 Saturday against Indy.)
Of course, it all comes down to execution, and both the backs and offensive line are getting it done.
“If you’re not doing good running the ball, it’s hard for them to keep calling runs,” Mankins said. “If you’re grinding out yards and at least showing promise in the run game, it’s easier for Josh [McDaniels] to call runs. If you’re getting stuffed every time, it’s a lot easier for him to call pass plays.”
“They couldn’t have put up a better performance,” Blount said when asked about the offensive line. “They’ve been doing this throughout the whole season, and I think Logan has been the only one that’s got the recognition, but it’s all of those [guys] up there that contain and do awesome and make those holes for me and Shane [Vereen] and [Stevan Ridley] and Brandon [Bolden].”
There’s peaking at the right time, and then there’s Blount, who has almost as many rushing yards over the last three games (431) as Brady has passing yards (492) in that stretch. Blount, who has been utilized perfectly over the course of the regular season, appears to be hitting his stride. The idea of having balance and being able to run the ball consistently in the postseason remains paramount, especially in nasty weather.
And while the Patriots have gone into the postseason with big backs in the past, it’s hard to imagine they’ve ever had one who’s as hot as Blount is right now.
“I’m really confident,” Blount said while standing at his locker, moments after getting a congratulatory hug from Charles Barkley. “Like I said, those guys in front of me, they don’t get tired, I ain’t going to get tired.
“If we’re going to be able to continue running the football like that throughout the playoffs, then I’ll be happy with it.”
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots Saturday night.
STEPHEN GOSTKOWSKI CAN PUNT
Rookie punter Ryan Allen was really blasted on a second-quarter punt attempt that left him sidelined for the rest of the night. On the play, a bad snap from Danny Aiken -- his worst of the year, really -- caused Allen to go scrambling back to the goal line to recover the ball, but he was cracked and lost the handle, and the play went for a safety. After punting the ensuing free kick, Allen went to the locker room and did not return. In his place, Gostkowski did well down the stretch, averaging 41.8 yards per punt on five attempts, which was not bad at all given the circumstances. Depending on the severity of Allen’s injury, the Patriots could spend the next few days kicking the tires on possible punters. It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the Patriots also will have to break in a new holder. (Brady was on the field working as a holder down the stretch, and he said after the game the last time he had worked as a holder when he was a collegian with Michigan in the Orange Bowl.)
TURNOVERS ARE MAGNIFIED IN THE POSTSEASON
The Patriots and Colts came into the game as two of the best teams in the league when it came to protecting the ball -- Indy was plus-13 over the course of the regular season, third best in the NFL, while New England was plus-9, which ranked eighth. But Luck threw four picks, and the Patriots were able to turn two of those turnovers into touchdowns. Dennard had a pair, setting the tone right out of the gate when he picked off Luck on his third pass attempt of the game. (He very nearly took it all the way back for a touchdown but went out of bounds at the 2 before Blount came away with his first touchdown of the night.) Meanwhile, Collins and Dont’a Hightower had one each. (For what it’s worth, Luck was remarkably careless with the ball in the postseason. In 16 regular-season games he threw nine interceptions, but he had seven in two playoff games.) The Patriots did fumble the ball three times on Saturday, but they were able to recover all three of them. Positive takeaway numbers are always a point of emphasis, but those mistakes have a way of being magnified a thousandfold when the postseason rolls around. The Colts turned the ball over and New England didn’t, and that’s a sizable reason the Patriots are moving on and Indy is going home.
STATS DON’T ALWAYS TELL THE WHOLE STORY
Much of the pregame storyline revolved around a potential matchup between Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib and Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton, and for most of the night, Talib was the lead defender on Hilton, regardless of whether the versatile Hilton was in the slot or split wide. (Talib did have some help from safety Steve Gregory, but he appeared to be working alone for sizable portions of the evening.) And while the box score shows that Hilton ended up with four catches for 103 yards, he was a nonfactor for most of the night, with just two catches for 17 yards in the first half, with one big second-half catch that ended up going for 46 yards. It wasn’t vintage Talib -- there were times where Hilton was open and Luck simply didn’t find him. But in the end, the checkmark for this matchup goes next to Talib for a few reasons, not the least of which was that Hilton was an offensive afterthought for much of the night. Consider this: Hilton, who led the team in targets during the regular season (he had 138, while Fleener was second with 88), was thrown at just six times Saturday night. All in all, it was a good night for Talib.
THESE ARE STRANGE DAYS
Most of the time, the Patriots postgame notes are dominated with the latest records set by Tom Brady. But the quarterback had his third straight game in which he finished with less than 200 yards passing, and Saturday marked the first time in his career he didn’t throw a touchdown pass in a game when the New England offense broke 40 points. (The last time he didn’t throw a touchdown pass and the Patriots broke 40? His first career start as a pro, which came in September 2001 against the Colts.) On Saturday he was 13-for-25 for 198 passing yards with two sacks, and over his last three games he’s a combined 41-for-75 for 492 yards with two touchdowns and one pick. He was at the controls for six scoring drives -- two of which lasted five minutes or more. (The Patriots also had a fourth-quarter series that consumed 7:42 and effectively drained all the life out of the Colts.) Brady joked after the game about being happy to be a game manager, content to simply be the sort of quarterback who turns and hands off 40 times a game. However, several players noted after the game it was Brady who would get to the line, see the defense he was presented with, and then audible to a run. Regardless of the final stat line, it sounds like the quarterback will take two more sub-200 yard passing games if it means two more wins. “We keep handing it off,” Brady said, “and those guys just run so hard and do such a great job running and finding the holes where they can just slice through there and gain as many yards as they can.”
JULIAN EDELMAN STILL IS THE MOST RELIABLE PART OF THE PASSING GAME
As noted, the Patriots went in looking to run the ball and run it consistently, and so the passing game was clearly de-emphasized. However, the one guy who managed to shine through again with an outstanding performance was Edelman, who ended with a team-high six catches (on nine targets) for 84 yards. Edelman had a nifty 27-yard pickup on the first drive of the second quarter that led to a Blount touchdown that made it 21-7, and he added a 25-yarder down the middle on the Patriots' second drive (five plays later, Blount was plunging in from two yards out to make it 14-0). While he wasn’t the only guy who come away with a reception on Saturday (Danny Amendola had three catches for 77 yards), he remains without peer in the New England locker room when it comes to connecting with Brady in the passing game, and will continue to be an absolutely vital part of the offense going forward.
THE PATRIOTS MIGHT REALLY HAVE SOMETHING WITH JAMIE COLLINS
The rookie linebacker out of Southern Miss was something of a revelation Saturday against the Colts. He started and didn’t come off the field the whole game, finishing his first playoff contest with six tackles (three solo), to go along with his first career pick and first sack. He was very competitive, particularly in coverage as he worked most of the time against tight end Coby Fleener. Collins had a nice tackle for loss midway through the third quarter on Trent Richardson, as well as a sack of Luck later on that same series. However, he saved his best highlight for the fourth quarter, when he picked off Luck and took it back to the Indy 18. At first glance, he didn’t appear to replicate the role of Brandon Spikes too much (that was left more to Hightower, who was working more inside), but it’s hard not to draw a line from the news on Saturday that Spikes may have played his last game with the Patriots to Collins' performance against the Colts. If Spikes indeed is not back next season, expect more to be placed on Collins’ shoulders, and if Saturday night is any indication, the hyperathletic linebacker might be prepared to take that step.
DONT’A HIGHTOWER CONTINUES HIS REDEMPTION TOUR
Earlier in the week, Hightower was very forthcoming about the struggles he went through earlier in the season, acknowledging that with several key defensive starters on the sideline, there were times that he tried to do too much. That, combined with the fact that he struggled with the increased level of responsibility on his plate because of the injuries to Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork, led to significant slippage in his game. (He was benched against the Broncos as a result.) However, he’s appeared to take major steps forward over the last couple of weeks, and on Saturday he appeared to be very comfortable as the man in the middle of the New England defense. The second-year linebacker out of Alabama had a team-high eight tackles (three solo) to go along with an interception as well as a pass defensed. (His pick came with just under two minutes left in the first half on a tipped pass.) While the Patriots couldn’t cash it in, it kept it a two-score game (a nine-point lead) going into halftime.
IF HE GETS MORE OPTIONS AROUND HIM, ANDREW LUCK WILL REMAIN A HEADACHE FOR THE PATRIOTS
The second-year quarterback threw four picks and looked a little overwhelmed at times against the Patriots defense, but he certainly possesses a preternatural ability for someone so early in their NFL career. He made a series of brilliant throws, connecting with LeVon Brazill on a 39-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and adding a 35-yard scoring strike to Brazill in the third quarter. The second pass came at the end of a lightning-quick drive that covered 80 yards and took only three plays, and ended up cutting the New England lead to 29-22 with just over five minutes left in the third. But in a reverse of last week’s wild-card magic, the quarterback came up short down the stretch, throwing two fourth-quarter picks as the Patriots put the pedal down on the way to the 21-point win. Luck finished 20-for-41 for 331 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions. While the season didn’t end the way he would have liked, provided he gets another option or two, particularly in the running game, he’ll be tough to beat down the road.
THE PATRIOTS ARE STARTING TO MAKE DIFFICULT THINGS LOOK RELATIVELY EASY
It’s remarkable that the franchise is going back to the AFC title game for a third consecutive season. No NFL team has been able to pull that off since the Eagles, who got there four straight years (2001-04.) The Patriots tied seven other teams that made it to the conference championship game three consecutive years, a group that includes the Niners (1992-94, 1988-90), Packers (1995-97) and Dolphins (1971-73). Four teams made it four straight seasons, including the Eagles, Bills (1990-93) and Cowboys (1992-95). One team made it five times -- the 1973-77 Raiders. While the Oakland mark is a couple of seasons away, this team can take a few moments to recognize just how tough it is to make it to the NFL’s final four on three straight occasions. “There are only going to be four teams standing after [Sunday],” said Brady. “I know people have counted us out at times during this year. But I think we have a locker room full of believers, so hopefully we can go out and play our best next week.”