By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts Running Man
Ten things we learned from New England's 43-22 win over Indianapolis that never seemed in doubt after the first few minutes of the game; the Colts made their moves, but the Patriots always had a counter.
They usually do.
1. The Patriots’ running approach shouldn’t have surprised anyone.
The final numbers were a surprise – six rushing touchdowns and 234 total yards. The Patriots joined the 1993 49ers and the 1940 Bears (seven) as the only teams with at least six rushing TDs in a postseason game.
But the Patriots have been riding their tailbacks all year, and in fact were riding them last year as well.
In 2011, the tailbacks ran it 489 times for 2,089 yards and 21 touchdowns, adding 657 yards receiving and four touchdowns. Those are spectacular numbers, and they were nearly cloned this year: 431 for 2,025 and 18 touchdowns, plus 682 receiving and three more TDs.
Against an Indy defense that couldn’t stop the run, on a rainy night, and with the knowledge that the Colts would have to pass, it was the only thing that made sense. The Patriots actually didn’t have a run over 10 yards until LeGarrette Blount’s 73-yarder, but the all-out commitment to the ground game paid its dividends nicely.
Blount, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen aren’t perfect backs, but they always seem to be the right man for the job when they’re called upon, and have essentially become a three-headed version of Walter Payton in terms of their production.
And how else are the Patriots going to move the ball? They have one healthy wideout (Julian Edelman) and two tight ends that are glorified tackles. And yet, the Colts had no answers.
2. San Diego or Denver should expect more of the same.
The Chargers and Broncos can’t have enjoyed this game much. If they had Colts blue-and-white on under their gray practice shirts, it would have been understandable.
San Diego allowed 4.6 yards a carry this season, and while Denver’s at 3.9 YPC allowed, almost all of their good games came in the first six weeks of the season. The Broncos gave up 121, 116 and 172 in their three losses.
The Chargers are more vulnerable, since they’d be playing on the road and have the worse defense, but Denver already found out first hand that they’ll have a hard time stopping the Patriots – and that was before the running game’s confidence went through the roof.
But while either will see the running game, they'll also likely see more of Brady as both struggle more than Indy against big plays and small through the air.
3. If NFL awards continued on into the postseason, Bill Belichick would have won Coach of the Year Saturday night.
Andy Reid will probably be the NFL Coach of the Year, but everyone who voted for him had to feel a bit silly after watching Belichick and his staff put together a perfect gameplan and reach the AFC title game with:
- Four rookies in the defensive starting lineup and one more on offense
- Pro Bowlers at tight end, right tackle, defensive tackle and linebacker all out for the season
- A completely different approach on both sides of the ball from where the season began
- A running game built around a guy in Blount who cost them a seventh-round pick in the offseason
Just because they have the name “Patriots” on the jersey doesn’t mean this was a 12-4 team; in lesser hands, they would have been satisfied at 8-8, let alone making a deep playoff run. This is Belichick’s best coaching achievement since 2001, and another entry on his legendary resume.
4. It’ll be interesting to see how much better Andrew Luck will be this time next year.
Luck had his moments this season as a soph, but it’s worth noting that his 87.0 passer rating was pretty vanilla, and the seven interceptions in the postseason pretty much disqualify him from talk of the playoffs being a success.
The Colts didn’t have a lot of talent around him, but they’ll double down on running Trent Richardson in the offseason in the hopes that he reinvents himself as good, and keep adding to the offense through the draft and free agency.
As bright as his future is, he still suffers in comparison to Russell Wilson in Seattle, who is not making the mistakes Luck is while offering more with his legs and his mind.
5. Steven Gostkowski’s fantastic season got another great highlight.
Gostkowski (158 points, three misses) was probably the best overall kicker in the league this year, but a notably bad game in Miami late in the season cost him a Pro Bowl spot.
But he certainly did his part and then some Saturday night, with five punts for 36.6 yards a pop replacing the injured Ryan Allen, and five flawless extra points (two out of Brady holds). He also sent all of his kickoffs deep into the end zone (and into the stands in one case), keeping the Colts starting at their 20 or worse all night long.
He’s 18 of 20 in the postseason for his career, and hasn’t missed one since 2009 in the playoffs.
6. Dan Dierdorf’s finale was an unfortunate swing and a miss.
You don’t always get to go out on top. Brett Favre was close, then choked away the NFC title game and followed it with a brutal goodbye season. Barry Sanders retired the best player in the league but on a dysfunctional Detroit Lions team.
And then there’s Dierdorf, who still has the same wonderful love of the game but not the verbal or analytical skills for the job anymore. He retires after two+ decades as a broadcaster after one of his worst games ever – suggesting that the Patriots’ safety in the second quarter on a botched punt was less desirable than the Colts getting the ball on the New England 2 was just embarrassing.
Even poker legend – and 80-year-old – Doyle Brunson noted the folly of this, Tweeting “Can't believe the announcer for the Pat game wanted the punter to fall on the ball at the 2 yard line instead of taking a safety.#dumbass”
Ouch. Dierdorf’s affable enthusiasm will be missed, but not his breakdowns of NFL games.
7. Logan Mankins had a Hall of Fame game.
Although the Patriots are likely to be thinly represented in Canton despite all their success, their longtime Pro Bowl left guard will probably be one who makes the cut.
Mankins played left tackle when called upon late in the season, then played hurt (played the Super Bowl with a torn ACL at the end of 2011), and Saturday was tough as nails. The Patriots ran repeatedly behind Mankins, who is consistently one of the league’s five best guards.
With six Pro Bowls, five straight years as 1st or 2nd All-Pro and now five trips to the AFC title game in his nine seasons, he needs only 2-3 more years at a Pro Bowl level to get the yellow jacket.
8. The Patriots won one for Sam.
Before the game, the Patriots lost one of their biggest fans – Sam Berns, a 17-year-old who suffered from the premature aging disease progeria before passing away Saturday.
New England owner Bob Kraft had opened the team’s doors many times to the Foxboro teen, whose life was profiled in an HBO documentary.
“I loved Sam Berns and am richer for having known him,” Kraft said in a statement. “Earlier this week, I had extended an invitation for Sam to be the Patriots’ honorary captain for tonight’s playoff game. I was looking forward to spending more time with Sam and his family. News of his passing came as a complete surprise. It is another reminder that we can’t take anything for granted. Be sure to give your loved ones hugs and kisses and tell them how much you love them. My heart aches for his parents, Scott and Leslie, his aunt Audrey and the rest of Sam’s extended family. Words cannot express the sadness or the depth of sympathy I feel for them today.”
9. Eight trips to the AFC title game in 13 years is a pretty remarkable achievement.
The 49ers are the only franchise to go the Patriots one better, doing it 8 times in 12 years between 1983-1994.
And in all eight of those trips, New England has done it with a first-round bye under their belts – only the 2010 loss to the Jets at home kept them from a ninth.
They’re 5-2 in those seven games thus far, with the five title game wins by 7, 10, 14, 9 and 3 points.
10. At some point, the Colts are going to have to crack down on yards allowed.
When the Colts were God-awful in 2011, going 2-14, they allowed 5.6 yards a play. But while their fortunes have turned with back-to-back 11-win seasons, their defense hasn’t really changed much – they allowed 6.0 a play in 2012 and 5.6 again this year.
On Saturday, a week after giving up 513 yards of offense, they gave up 419 more (5.7 yards a play), putting Luck in a position to fail (which he did). Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky had his share of injuries on his side of the ball, but he’s now coordinated seven seasons in three different cities and never had a team finish in the top 10 giving up yards.