The New England Patriots locked up the second overall seed in the AFC and clinched a much needed first-round bye in the process with a 34-20 victory over the Bills, thanks in large part to the record-setting performance from unheralded offseason acquisition LeGarrette Blount.
Blount set a franchise record for all-purpose yards Sunday, grinding out 189 yards rushing and adding an impressive 145 yards returning kickoffs. Looking back to the Patriots preseason and the crowded youth movement in the backfield, Blount was far from a sure-thing to make the final roster. Ultimately, head coach Bill Belichick decided to retain all five backs heading into the regular season; with the exception of veteran return specialist Leon Washington (currently with the Titans), each player has helped fill a role in New England's much improved rushing attack.
Blount, as it turns out, wasn't even a lock to end up in New England at all. Before pulling the trigger on a a trade that sent former Florida track star Jeff Demps to Tampa Bay in exchange for Blount, Belichick inquired about the undrafted Oregon product with his ex-teammate Aqib Talib.
“I think definitely the assist on this one has to go to our assistant personnel director, Talib,” Belichick joked in the post-game press conference. “I talked to [Talib] before we traded for LeGarrette and everything he said about him [turned out to be] right."
When pressed on the subject after the game, Talib didn't shy away from the credit.
“I put a GM hat on, he gave me a call, you know,” he said, referring to Belichick. “I just told him he’d get a lot of explosive plays from him, he’d get a great locker room guy, and a great teammate, and that’s what we got,” Talib added.
The explosive plays were certainly on display on a rain drenched Gillette field Sunday night. Each of his two scores came on runs of 36 yards, both of which he was able to pick up after significant contact. While he generates surprising straight-line speed after he gets going and has rare lateral cutting ability for a back his size (6 feet, north of 250 pounds), Blount's greatest asset is his ability to keep the legs churning and pick up the tough yards while dragging would-be-tacklers along for the ride. After the Last Sunday's impressive blowout victory over the Baltimore Ravens, Blount stressed that his hard-nosed rushing style is a point of pride, and that his mindset revolves around fighting for every possible inch that he can so long as he protects the ball.
It 's well documented that teams that can consistently control the line of scrimmage and rush the ball down their opponents' throats find themselves in an advantageous situation heading into the postseason. As the weather gets colder, the ball slicker, the whistles rarer and the oft-overlooked time of possession becomes paramount, great football teams (usually) win with a coordinated attack of both passing and rushing. It may be a "pass happy" league dominated by weekly 400-yard throwing performances and ticky-tack pass interference calls, but the Patriots have shown over the last month that sometimes the best formula for winning is lining up, handing the ball off to your workhorse back and being more physical at the point of attack.
New England probably won't make a serious run if quarterback Tom Brady goes for just 122 yards in the air, as he did on Sunday, but being able to lean on other pieces on offense and embrace less than perfect performances from Brady is a formula that has been missing in Foxborough for years.
Speaking of long running absences in Foxborough, the Bills haven't won a game in the Pats' house since 2000, when Doug Flutie was still at the helm- – that's 12 consecutive road losses to their divisional rivals, and a disturbing trend to the Orchard Park faithful.
With the regular season officially in the rear-view, there won't be any more Buffaloesque teams knocking on New England's door. That's the bad news. The good news is that the Patriots get two crucial weeks to heal the bumps and bruises that continue to mount at nearly every positional group. Whether it will be enough time to continue playing with the same level of grit and resilience, no one knows. The Patriots couldn't care less, and their approach heading into the bye week will reflect this apathy.
"Same mindset I have now," echoed Blount. "I’m going to go out there and I’m going to play my game. I’m going to go out there and play physical, run hard and I’m going to fight for extra yardage and do everything I can to come on and win the next game.”
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