FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Nearly an hour after the job was finished Saturday night and the New England Patriots had advanced to another AFC title game, the home team’s locker room at Gillette Stadium was almost empty.
The bulk of the players, media and the visiting celebrity, Charles Barkley, had left.
Yet among the few players who lingered, one still was wearing his full, grass-stained uniform.
LeGarrette Blount, the star of the night, took his sweet time leaving this scene.
“He’s feeling himself,” Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib told USA TODAY Sports. “He don’t want to take it off. I wouldn’t want to take it off, either, if I had four touchdowns.”.
Then Talib let out a bellow. He knew what Blount’s performance in his NFL playoff debut – a franchise record-tying 166 yards and franchise record four touchdowns against the Indianapolis Colts – meant to his closest friend on the team.
This was the type of attention that has been a long time coming for Blount, a fourth-year veteran already with his third NFL team.
Blount, you might recall, got noticed for an ugly incident during his senior year at Oregon when he cold-cocked a trash-talking Boise State player as the teams mingled on the field after the game.
He was originally suspended for the rest of the season by his outraged coach, Chip Kelly, who later scaled back the suspension to eight games.
Although he apologized afterward and served his punishment, Blount saw his reputation tarnished as he went to the next level. It was one of the worst ways for a player to make a name for himself.
“It’s over and done with now,” Blount told USA TODAY Sports as he removed his cleats. “I don’t even talk about that now. That was done with four years ago.
“But we can talk about the Colts game.”.
In one sense, it seems that Blount is uncomfortable hogging the spotlight.
“Y’all should go talk to the offensive line,” he said. “They did all of the hard work.”.
On another level, though, he has every right to bask in this moment. He’s a big reason – literally and figuratively — why the Patriots are headed to Denver to face the Broncos and play in a third consecutive AFC title game. He is in the spotlight because he cannot be ignored.
Blount’s emergence has been essential for a Patriots team that has had its once-prolific passing game sputter, with injuries and other issues forcing a near complete makeover of the receivers who surround quarterback Tom Brady.
He has taken pressure off Brady, with momentum building for weeks. Blount finished December with his two biggest games of the regular season -a 16-carry, 76-yard outing at the Baltimore Ravens, then a 24-carry, 189-yard outburst against the Buffalo Bills – before starting January with a bang.
That Blount, who entered the NFL with the Tennessee Titans as a free agent but did not play a regular-season down for them, is finally flourishing is another testament to Bill Belichick’s coaching. The Patriots have a way of getting the best from players, even some who were considered problems for issues beyond football.
Belichick told Blount something that has made a tremendous difference. He tweaked Blount’s running style, which Belichick determined was too high. The coach implored him to run with a lower pad level.
“So I changed that and started breaking more tackles,” Blount said, “started getting a lot more yards after contact.”.
How fitting. Belichick has also tweaked the Patriots offense to lean much more heavily on the run, and the results are showing in the nick of time. One way to defend Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, trigger for the highest-scoring offense in league history, is to keep him off the field by controlling the clock.
No doubt it’s conceivable the Patriots can ride Blount to a sixth Super Bowl appearance since 2001. Broncos defenders will be pressed to stop the 6-0, 250-pounder. Only one Patriots linebacker weighs more than Blount – who packs uncanny speed to go with his power.
How would Talib react if Blount came at him with a head of steam in the open field?
“I’d probably be one of his jump-over victims,” Talib said, “because I’d shoot (at) his legs.”.
Blount was obtained from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (just like his pal, Talib) when the Patriots gave up Jeff Demps and a seventh-round draft pick in April — which seems like quite the bargain.
Before swinging the deal Belichick talked to Talib, who had off-the-field issues in Tampa, but has been a model citizen in two seasons with the Patriots. Talib said that he emphasized Blount’s competitiveness in endorsing him to Belichick.
Blount also has vivid memories of landing in New England. He insists that he wasn’t so much in need of fresh scenery as he longed for an opportunity to play. He became expendable to the Bucs after the emergence last season of running back Doug Martin.
Blount says that after he arrived, Belichick told him, “Get ready to work. We play hard, practice hard and we’re all about winning games.”.
His reaction? “Yeah, that’s all I’m about, too.”.
They ran better as the season progressed, which flows in sync with an NFL trend that often surfaces this time of year — when the weather becomes more of a factor and the games get tighter in the playoffs.
Through the first two weekends of the playoffs, teams that have gained the most rushing yards are 7-1. Only two of the eight games were won by teams that logged more passing attempts than rushing attempts.
New England rushed a season-high 46 times Saturday night, while Brady attempted just 25 passes.
During the regular season, only five teams had more rushing attempts than passing attempts.
“I think we’ve always strived to be more balanced,” said Patriots guard Logan Mankins. “It’s just, what is the strength of your offense? At times, we’re a better passing team than running team. Right now, I don’t know if we’re a better running team than a passing team, but the running is working. So why go away from something that’s working?”.
It would have been tempting for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to move away from the running game Saturday night. At halftime, the Patriots averaged 3.2 yards per carry.
But he stuck with it. And Blount made the Colts pay with a 73-yard score early in the fourth quarter that was essentially the back-breaking run.
“He’s been making explosive runs, ever since I’ve seen him,” Talib said. “Of course, you hate to get traded, but it was definitely a blessing that he did.”.
It’s no wonder that long after that big play, Blount sat in the locker room, still in uniform, looking eager for more.
Talib was reminded of a scene from last week, when he needled Blount for giving the media “long answers” while the cornerback waited to join him.
It was a similar scene Saturday night.
“You know how he does it,” Talib said. “That’s him. This is a good time, good space. He’s had seven touchdowns the last two games. I wouldn’t take my uniform off, either.”.