FOXBORO -- As LeGarrette Blount answered questions for over 30 minutes in front of his locker after his historic effort in a 43-22 playoff win over the Colts, there was another running back holding court just three lockers down on "Running Back Row" who didn't have such a shabby day himself.
While Stevan Ridley ran for only two scores on the night compared to Blount's four, the effect was most definitely felt throughout the offense. Blount was a beacon that led the way on a stormy night at Gillette Stadium.
Ridley had a respectable 52 yards on 13 carries and two touchdowns. But, as has been the case since Dec. 1 against Houston, Blount has been the go-to back in the Patriots' revived running attack. Saturday night, Blount had 166 yards on 24 carries, including a franchise playoff record four rushing touchdowns. New England ran the ball 46 times for 234 yards.
Together, Ridley and Blount combined for six touchdown runs, just one shy of the NFL playoff record set by the 1940 Bears in their epic 73-0 dismantling of the Redskins in the NFL championship game. Both were in concert on the field just like they were in front of their lockers, pushing all the right buttons and saying all the right things.
"That's what we go into the game thinking," Blount said. "We feel like we're the most physical team no matter who we play, and that's how we practice, that's how we play, and that's our mindset."
"That was amazing," Tom Brady beamed. "We keep handing it off 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. It was pretty cool."
Since Dec. 1, that has seemed to be the mindset of the coaching staff, too. Blount has carried the ball 98 times for 594 yards and nine touchdowns.
"I'm really confident," Blount said. "Those guys in front of me, they don't get tired. I ain't going to get tired, and if we're going to be able to continue running the football like that throughout the playoffs then I'll be happy with it."
Watching Ridley and Blount together, you can see why Tom Brady was amazed -- and grateful -- after Saturday's win. The Patriots have found their red zone answer without Rob Gronkowski, at least for the last three games. Blount had touchdown runs of one and seven yards against Baltimore on Dec. 22. Blount bypassed the red zone altogether in the season finale, running for scores from 35 and 36 yards against the Bills. Saturday night, Blount's first three touchdown runs were from two yards out before breaking off the 73-yarder that broke the game open and put the Pats up, 36-22.
Ridley says he certainly has no problem being second fiddle to Blount during the veteran's resurgence with the Patriots. More to the point, Ridley understands that the Patriots would be foolish not to go with the hot hand.
"Absolutely, I mean, Blount's been giving me a tough run, man," Ridley said, acknowledging the fact that he's not the primary ball carrier right now. "It's tough to catch this guy right now, but I mean, when you're breaking 50, 60, 70-yard runs, it's going to be like that, so maybe I've got to up my speed in the offseason so I can catch the big boy. But he's doing a tremendous job right now, and I'd just really say as a whole our running back room is a room that they're leaning on, and we're just trying our best to do our job when we go out there each and every night."
As for that beacon effect and leading the Patriots through stormy weather, you could say Blount has had the same impact on Ridley.
Remember, Blount was a 26-year-old running back, still in his prime, that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave up on and were willing to part with for Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick in last April's draft. Blount was considered too slow and ineffective by head coach Greg Schiano. It appeared Foxboro was the last stand for a back who showed so much promise but so little discipline at Oregon under coaches Mike Bellotti and Chip Kelly. Blount was breaking team rules (2008) and punching opposing players (2009).
All of this collectively put a red flag on Blount's file with NFL teams, who didn't want to spend a draft pick on an uncertain commodity.
The drama continued after the 2010 draft when he agreed in principle to sign as an undrafted free agent with San Francisco. He changed his mind after a meeting with then-Titans head coach Jeff Fisher. He couldn't make the team, as Tennessee wanted to clear him through waivers and put him on the practice squad. Instead, Tampa Bay claimed him off waivers. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in his rookie season with the 2010 Buccaneers.
But that would be the high point for the next three seasons. He lost his standing in Tampa Bay and was finally dealt out of town.
Blount's resurgence caught the eye of Ridley, who has certainly been through his own rough waters in the last two seasons, dealing with a fumbling problem that caused him to do some praying and soul searching. Like Blount, Ridley came to New England with a lot of talent. Unlike Blount, there has never been a concern about Ridley's work ethic or his attitude. So, what has Ridley learned from watching Blount over the last month? Has he seen the same kind of amazing resurgence that might inspire him?
"You've just got to keep pushing, man. You've got to keep pushing," Ridley told WEEI.com. "I always say, life's a journey, man. It's a test of your faith, because you're going to have your ups and downs, but you look at Blount, a guy that's never been in the postseason, never been in the playoffs, he comes in here and plays his butt off, and for me, I've been here, I've been fortunate enough to be here for three years and been to the postseason every year, so really we just try to go out there and just focus on this year.
"And this year we have a group of guys that has been through a lot. This team has been through a lot, from the beginning all the way till now we've been through a ton, but we've 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 we want to try to get to where we want to get to and try to be playing in February."
That, of course, is the ultimate goal, and for the first time in the Tom Brady era, the Patriots have a true multi-faceted running game. In 2001, it was Antowain Smith as the lead ball carrier with Kevin Faulk and J.R. Redmond chipping in here and there. In 2004, the Patriots turned to Corey Dillon as their feature back. When it was time to convert short yardage or kill the clock at the end of a game, everyone knew who was getting the ball.
On Saturday, in short yardage on third down, there was no debate. The run game was the way to go. The running game provided 13 first downs and helped the Patriots convert 11 of 18 third-down chances.
"It feels like every time you've really got to prove yourself on every run, and there was plenty of third down and short situations in this game that we had to prove ourselves, and that's kind of what we did in some situations," starting left tackle Nate Solder said.
But on Saturday, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels didn't just lean on Blount. It was Ridley who worked hard to regain the trust of the coaching staff to carry the ball late in a playoff game. His first touchdown run was a hard-churning three-yard carry that put the Patriots up, 29-15. His second, a one-yard plunge, salted away the game at 43-22.
"I'm really just thankful for my opportunity, man," Ridley said. "It's been a tough year, but for me it's just sticking it out, and I'm glad my coaches are coming back to me and letting me contribute to this team victory. So for us, we just try to go out there and maximize every opportunity that we get, and that's what I'm doing."
For the fourth time in his playoff career, Tom Brady did not throw a single touchdown pass. The Patriots have won all four games.
"If you would have told me before the game, I would not have believed it at all," Blount said. "We didn't know that we [were] going to be able to dominate, but we came in, 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 always got number 12 [Tom Brady] that's going to put the team on his back and do great things like he's always done in his whole career."
Have the Patriots finally found a way to turn back the clock to those days in the early-to-mid 2000s when the running game was paving the way to Super Bowl success?
"It was good. We keep playing like that, the way our defense is getting the ball for us, and really what we've done the last three or four weeks, the running game has just been awesome," Brady said. "It's helped everything out. And it does, it makes it easy when you hand it off and it goes 70 yards for a touchdown. That's a great feeling and great way to score. Hopefully we keep doing it. Hopefully we can do it next week too."