New England Patriots: LeGarrette Blount

Weekly Patriots chat recap

May, 22, 2014
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Every Thursday on ESPNBoston.com there is a New England Patriots chat in the late morning/early afternoon. Today's chat kicked off at 1 p.m. ET, can be recapped here, and included some of the following topics:

1. First-round draft choice Dominique Easley and the increasing value of the penetrating defensive lineman.

2. Quarterback chatter: Jimmy Garoppolo/2014 vs. Ryan Mallett/2011.

3. Should the Patriots have given more consideration to signing undrafted Oregon tight end Colt Lyerla?

4. Rob Ninkovich and if he's been as productive as a 4-3 defensive end as he was as a 3-4 outside linebacker.

5. Following up on 2013 seventh-round draft choice Michael Buchanan as a possible option to add important pass-rushing depth.

6. Patriots running backs, from Stevan Ridley, to Stephen Houston, to James White and the departure of LeGarrette Blount.

Several Pats FAs are still out there

March, 28, 2014
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With the NFL owners meetings behind us, we’ve come to something of a natural juncture within the NFL offseason schedule.

Most of the major free-agent activity has come and passed, though there is still a collection of talent available.

The New England Patriots have been busy already this offseason, but certainly might not be done.

One of the orders of business the Patriots will continue to monitor is their own free agents.

Below is a snapshot of those still available to sign, with a quick-hit thought.

Williams
Blount
RB LeGarrette Blount: Blount is reportedly visiting the Steelers today, marking his most legitimate interest from another team that we’ve heard of. The running back market has been soft this offseason, and a return to New England would still make sense in our eyes.

DE Andre Carter: The veteran provided experience as a midseason signing, though his ability to impact the game on the field has regressed. He indicated last year that if he weren’t to return to the Patriots, he’d retire.

WR Austin Collie: Dependable in a small role last season, Collie is the type of player the Patriots can be patient on. After re-signing Julian Edelman and adding Brandon LaFell in free agency, there is not a huge need to re-sign Collie with Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson expected to develop in Year 2.

Tight end Matthew Mulligan: Tight end remains an area to address for the Patriots, but Mulligan is another player who there is no need to rush on. He’s replaceable through a late-round draft choice or other veteran option.

Offensive tackle Will Svitek: Svitek offers versatility to play both tackle spots and guard, though a balky ankle slowed him down the stretch last season. With Marcus Cannon on the roster, the Patriots have their swing tackle. Svitek has a place in this league as a reserve.

Center Ryan Wendell: Perhaps the most intriguing name still on this list. If Wendell had been a free agent after the 2012 season, the narrative might be different. But a difficult 2013 has decreased his market. At a low-money contract, bringing him back is a wise investment.

Report: RB Blount to visit Steelers

March, 21, 2014
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Williams
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Free-agent running back LeGarrette Blount is scheduled to visit the Pittsburgh Steelers, according to a report from Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun/National Football Post.

This is the first reported visit for Blount since free agency began March 11.

The Steelers previously hosted veteran Maurice Jones-Drew and are in the market for another running back to pair with second-year player Le'Veon Bell. Meanwhile, the Patriots and Blount have expressed mutual interest in his return, but Blount hasn't been inclined to sign a contract at this point. Perhaps a visit to the Steelers sparks the process forward in some fashion.

The Patriots currently have Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden and Jonas Gray at running back. Ridley, Vereen and Bolden all enter the final year of their contracts, so the Patriots figure to add a running back at some point, either in free agency or the draft.

A few leftover pieces of Patriots mail

March, 19, 2014
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A few leftover pieces of New England Patriots mail from Tuesday's mailbag...

Chris (Washington DC): Hey Mike, the TE position has always been one that has been one of Tom Brady's favorite targets. From Christian Fauria, to Ben Watson, to Gronk and Hernandez. I know they re-signed Michael Hoomanawanui but is he enough? Do the Patriots trust that he will be reliable this season as the full time starter for most if not all of the season? Or do you think this will be something they address to get help in the draft and or free agency?

Chris, I think the Patriots are happy to have Hoomanawanui back as he's proven to be a reliable, team-first player. But I also believe they aren't done addressing the position. There are currently three tight ends on the roster -- Rob Gronkowski, Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams -- and I would anticipate at least two more added by the time training camp begins in late July. We're looking at a partial snapshot right now.



Tom C. (North andover ma): Hey Mike, I was very disappointed at the loss of Dane Fletcher. His special teams efforts were significant but I always liked what I saw of him when he played. Fletcher just always seemed to show up and make plays. He only went to Tampa on a one-year deal. Why weren't the Patriots more interested in keeping him?

Tom, my educated guess would be economics, as perhaps the Patriots view Fletcher as more of a pure core special teamer, and paying a salary north of $1 million for that might not represent the best value to them when you can have a younger player at more than half the cost. Also, sometimes it's more the player's choice to seek a fresh start, which is something to keep in mind as well. I'm going to be interested to watch how that unfolds because Fletcher is going to a much different defensive system under Lovie Smith than what the Patriots play under Bill Belichick. Maybe it turns out to be a better fit for him.



Benjamin (Concord, MA): Hi Mike, with the Patriots taking such an uncanny aggressive offseason approach this offseason,wouldn't it be fair to expect the team to perhaps move up in the draft for some "real" talent. If so, who could you envision them trading up for?

Benjamin, I see it a little bit differently in terms of the "aggressiveness." Obviously, the Darrelle Revis signing was a big one, and that is unusual, but I think it was more about capitalizing on an unexpected opportunity than a specific philosophical change in approach. With this in mind, I wouldn't expect anything different in the team's draft approach. If the right players are there and there is an opportunity to move up (e.g. Chandler Jones/Dont'a Hightower in 2012), I think they'll do it. If the better play is to trade back in a 4-picks-for-1-pick scenario (similar to last year), I think they'd do that, too. It's all about seizing the opportunities that present themselves.



John (Honolulu): Hi Mike, last year the [Patriots] picked up Armond Armstead from the CFL and after missing last season, he will be back in 2014. While maybe better suited for the interior of the defense, do you think he gets a look at possibly defensive end? We know that Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones need a breather now and then.

John, I had specifically asked Bill Belichick that question last year, about the possibility of Armstead as an end-of-the-line player and he dismissed it by noting Armstead is 295 pounds and more suited for the interior.



Josh (Reading/PA): Hi Mike, obviously things are fluid right now, but is it possible to get a sense of how much more room the Pats have under the salary cap now that they've signed/re-signed Hoomanawanui, Revis, Browner, LaFell, Edelman, and Co? I know it may be hard to say, what with pending potential releases/restructures with Vince and A. Wilson, but is it still reasonable to think that we can still keep Blount and Wendell while bringing a veteran pass-rusher aboard?

Josh, a conservative estimate is around $7 million of cap space. I still think Blount has a good chance of being back. My take on Ryan Wendell is that they would welcome him back at lower financial levels with the hope of adding competition at the position.

Patriots free agents and perception

February, 27, 2014
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On Wednesday night, two media-based lists were passed along on top NFL free agents, from the perspective of viewing where Patriots players were placed.

Let's follow that up today, as Greg Bedard of TheMMQB.com has released the rest of his list (players 1-50) and the CBSSports.com tandem of Pete Prisco and Pat Kirwan has also unveiled theirs as well.

Bedard has cornerback Aqib Talib as the No. 17 overall free agent.

"An unquestioned passion for the game and shutdown ability, but he's never played 16 games and his off-field problems aren't that far removed," Bedard writes, before adding that Talib's best fit is back in New England. "Both sides are comfortable with him there, and other teams might be reluctant to give him a big deal."

Bedard has Talib as the third best corner on the market, behind Tennessee's Alterraun Verner (No. 9) and Miami's Brent Grimes (No. 15).

Meanwhile, the Prisco/Kirwan list has Talib at No. 19 and the fourth overall cornerback behind Verner, the Colts' Vontae Davis, and Grimes.

Other Patriots on the list include:

No. 31 -- Julian Edelman
No. 68 -- Brandon Spikes
No. 95 -- LeGarrette Blount
No. 132 -- Ryan Wendell

QUICK-HIT THOUGHTS: With some top cornerbacks all hitting the market at the same time, this could be a case where all it takes is for one domino to fall before the others fall into place. In that sense, when projecting Talib's potential return to New England, it almost can't be mentioned without factoring in Verner, Davis and Grimes because they all figure to be in the same general market.

Draft & free agency: Running back

February, 21, 2014
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With free agency to begin March 11, and the draft from May 8-10, one thing NFL teams generally do at this time is marry the two to better assess the best approach to filling potential needs. For example, if a team knows it’s a deep draft for top-quality offensive tackles (2014 is such), it might be less inclined to be as aggressive at that position in free agency.

This was a general point made by several coaches and executives at the NFL combine, such as Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera and Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

With this in mind, our plan is to continue to look at each position in the coming days through a similar lens.

Today's position: Running back

Draft: The class is deep but not top-heavy, as it's possible there isn't a running back selected in the first round. Part of that is tied to a general de-valuing of the position by teams. NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said, "The good news in this draft and in the last few is that if you can get in the second, third, fourth round, and find different flavors of running backs; you'll see some teams that will draft two or three running backs in one or two drafts, just so you can have a big back and a third down change of pace guy and I think that's where the league has gone and I think that's where it's going to continue to go." Boston College's Andre Williams is Mayock's fourth-rated rusher.

Free agency: Five-year veteran LeGarrette Blount is part of a deep group that includes Knowshon Moreno (Broncos), Donald Brown (Colts), Darren McFadden (Raiders), Maurice Jones-Drew (Jaguars), Dexter McCluster (Chiefs), Rashard Mendenhall (Cardinals), Willis McGahee (Browns), James Starks (Packers) and Ben Tate (Texans), among others. This has been more of a buyer's market in recent years and 2014 is likely to be the same.

Patriots perspective: Blount came on strong at the end of the 2013 season and bringing back him would seemingly be a priority; a two-year deal in the $3-4 million range is one projection of the market to do so. With Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen entering the final years of their contracts, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Patriots draft a running back to build depth and with 2015 in mind.

Patriots positional review: RB

January, 24, 2014
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Continuing our positional review/offseason preview, here’s a look at the Patriots running backs:

Ridley
Ridley
Stevan Ridley
Age: 24
2013 status: Led backs in snaps (28 percent), started 6 games.
2013 highlights: Ran for 773 yards and scored seven touchdowns, though his season will be in many ways remembered for a string of three straight games with a fumble that led to being inactive for a game. Ridley has the most pure running talent on the team, but he must overcome ball-security issues.
Current contract runs through: 2014 season

Shane Vereen
Age: 24
2013 status: Second among backs in snaps (24.3 percent), started 1 of 8 games active
2013 highlights: Missed 8 games because of a Week 1 wrist injury, but became a pass-catching force in his return. Had 47 catches during the regular season, establishing himself as a top pass-catching back in the role previously held by Danny Woodhead. Had some critical drops, but realized potential in third pro season.
Current contract runs through: 2014 season

LeGarrette Blount
Age: 27
2013 status: Third among backs in snaps (23.3 percent), started 7 games
2013 highlights: Came on like a freight train late in the season, surpassing 300 total yards during the regular-season finale. A bruiser who bounced back after a disappointing 2012 season in Tampa Bay. Not always electric, but flashed big play explosiveness down the stretch. Had 8 rushing scores in last four games (playoffs included).
Current contract runs through: Free agent

Brandon Bolden
Age: 23
2013 status: Fourth among backs in snaps (23.2 percent), started 2 of 12 games played
2013 highlights: Was a part of the running back rotation during the middle of the season, playing a critical role in the Week 12 win against Denver. Made more pronounced impact on special teams as a core coverage player.
Current contract runs through: 2014

James Develin
Age: 25
2013 status: Played 25.8 percent of offensive snaps, starting 6 of 16 games at fullback
2013 highlights: A hammerhead who brought unique toughness to the offense this season and was roundly respected by his teammates. Made his contributions primarily as a lead blocker in two-back sets, though he also chipped in with a rushing touchdown against Houston.
Current contract runs through: 2014

Others on the roster: Jonas Gray, Sam McGuffie (RB/WR)

Positional need: New England’s approach at running back has often been by committee, and 2013 was no different. Vereen cemented himself as the go-to option when the team pressed the up-tempo button, while Ridley and Blount were more of the bellcow types. While Blount’s performance late in the season makes him a player of interest to bring back, NFL teams are becoming judicious in paying big bucks to backs because of their "replace-ability." That being said, bringing Blount back would solidify the depth at the position, with three quality starter types and Bolden as insurance.

Belichick preps for offseason of decisions

January, 20, 2014
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Following their second straight loss in the AFC Championship Game, the New England Patriots are, in a way, treading water. They remain elite, but the streak of seasons without a Super Bowl triumph is now at nine and there is plenty of work to do in order to get over the hump.

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaBill Belichick walked away from the podium after his final news conference of the season ready to tackle a long offseason to do list.
That work began in earnest Monday, a day after the Patriots dropped a 26-16 decision at Denver. Head coach Bill Belichick said no personnel changes are imminent, but the next month or two will see the beginning of a transformation.

“In the neighborhood of six to eight weeks,” he said Monday morning when asked when official transactions will begin to occur. “Obviously, free agency starts a little less than two months from now so we need to be ready by then.”

Free agency begins at 4 p.m. ET on March 11. Key players such as cornerback Aqib Talib, wide receiver Julian Edelman and running back LeGarrette Blount are among 13 Patriots on the list. Before that comes the combine in Indianapolis and on the immediate horizon for Belichick and his staff is the end of college all-star games, including the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., on Saturday. College workouts also occur in March, the draft comes in May and then OTA’s before there is, finally, a calming period.

Belichick sees pros and cons to having his season end late in January.

“When your season goes into the postseason as ours did for three weeks, you’re behind going into the combine, draft and to a certain degree I’d say the free-agency process,” he said. “So to be honest with you we’re on to the 2014 season right now. We’re behind, so we have some catching up to do. That’s a good position to be in, but it’s a bad position to be in.

“[If] your season ends on the last day [of the regular season], you have those extra three weeks to try to get caught up on the college draft, get caught up other things. We’ve been trying to win games in the postseason so we’re behind there. The slower time in the NFL is that mid-June to mid-July range and right now is not it. Similar to the college season, those guys end their season and the next day they’re out recruiting. That’s the nature of the schedule.”

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Belichick said he may go to the Senior Bowl and is sure to hit the combine next month. He also said he will communicate, in one form or another, with every player on the roster. Discussions with Talib and others in that boat will involve their future with the team.

Blount, who broke out for 431 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in the three games prior to the AFC Championship, said Monday that he hopes to be able to run the football for Belichick next year.

“Bill is the best coach that’s ever coached this game,” he said.

Blount echoed Belichick’s satisfaction in what the team was able to accomplish in the wake of injuries to several key players.

“For me personally? No,” he said when asked if there was pride in the season. “But for this team there’s a lot to be proud of.”

(Read full post)

Snaps: Edelman with ironman finish

January, 20, 2014
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DENVER -- A look at the snaps played by skill-position players in the New England Patriots' 26-16 loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game:

QB Tom Brady -- 59 of 59
WR Julian Edelman -- 59 of 59
TE Michael Hoomanawanui -- 49 of 59
WR Danny Amendola -- 41 of 59
RB Shane Vereen -- 41 of 59
WR Austin Collie -- 37 of 59
WR Aaron Dobson -- 22 of 59
TE Matthew Mulligan -- 13 of 59
FB James Develin -- 12 of 59
RB Stevan Ridley -- 10 of 59
RB LeGarrette Blount -- 8 of 59
WR Matthew Slater -- 3 of 59

(Penalties included. Two-point conversion included.)

ANALYSIS: Edelman's importance to the offense is reflected in the fact he never left the field in the most important game of the season. He gave the team everything he had. ... Dobson, a rookie receiver, was obviously limited with a foot injury and was managed carefully. The beneficiary of his absence was Collie, who rose up to the challenge with a strong performance. ... Amendola played too many snaps to go without a catch. He had the one drop. ... At running back, it was a rotation with the big backs Blount and Ridley, but they hardly played because of the way the game unfolded and the Patriots were forced into more of a passing game. With that, Vereen took the majority of snaps at the position. ... The 59 snaps were a season-low. The previous low was 63, against the Bengals on Oct. 6.

Blount, Pats run game goes nowhere

January, 19, 2014
1/19/14
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DENVER -- Employing a game-plan offense, the New England Patriots’ strategy each week revolves around identifying an opposing team’s weaknesses and aiming to exploit them.

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Stevan Ridley (5 carries, 17 yards) and the Patriots' run game was held in check by the Broncos.
On paper, the Denver Broncos’ defensive weakness was their secondary. Throwing the football seemed like a natural avenue for the Patriots to take on Sunday.

But with the sensational success of the running game of late -- catalyzed by between-the-tackles rushing by LeGarrette Blount -- sticking with the ground-and-pound approach seemed plausible too.

On Sunday, throwing the ball just wasn’t enough, and the ground game was unable to penetrate what has proven to be a stingy Denver run defense down the stretch.

“They were good against the run, good against the pass,” guard Logan Mankins said after the game. “They just took advantage of our offense today.”

Over the past three games entering Sunday, the Patriots had averaged 34.3 carries for 200.3 yards between the tackles, with Blount playing a leading role and scoring eight times during that stretch.

The production from the running game shriveled on Sunday, as Blount had four rushes for 6 yards between the tackles, a far cry from his 18.3 rushes for 130 yards on average over the past three games.

As a team, the Patriots weren’t much better, finishing with 64 yards on 16 carries for the day.

It was just one area of struggle on a day that the Patriots didn’t have the horses to keep up with the Broncos.

Quick-hit thoughts from first quarter

January, 19, 2014
1/19/14
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DENVER -- After 15 minutes of play, the New England Patriots trail the Denver Broncos 3-0 in the AFC Championship Game. Passing along quick-hit notes and observations from the first quarter.

1. Pats' O starts slow. The Patriots' offense needed just one play to find the end zone last Saturday, but the start wasn't quite the same today, as the offense went three and out on its first drive and punted on each of the first two drives. Some notable personnel factors: Aaron Dobson is playing some in two-receiver sets, LeGarrette Blount once again is handling lead back duties and both Matthew Slater and Austin Collie have been targeted on third-down plays.

2. Perfect conditions. The weather is idyllic in Denver today, with a temperature of 61 degrees at kickoff. There's hardly a cloud in the sky, and there's minimal wind. A strong glare has made things difficult on returners fielding punts deep.

3. Broncos open the scoring. The Broncos got on the board first with a field goal late in the first quarter. The drive was helped by a long completion from Peyton Manning to Demaryius Thomas on a third and 10 play. The Patriots were able to hold the Broncos from the 10-yard line, however, forcing the field goal from Matt Prater.

4. Patriots' offense driving. The Patriots' offense generated a little bit of buzz at the end of the quarter, crossing into Denver territory. The second quarter will open with the Patriots facing a fourth down from Denver's 39.

5. Penalty box. The following Patriots were flagged for penalties during the first quarter: tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (offensive pass interference).

Blount doing most damage up the middle

January, 14, 2014
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The Patriots have reinvented themselves as a run-first team over the past few weeks, a strategy that has paid big dividends thanks to a dominant offensive line and breakout performances from running back LeGarrette Blount.

New England ran the ball on 62.5 percent of its plays in its divisional playoff victory against the Colts on Saturday night, its highest percentage in any game since 2008. It continued a trend of the Patriots leaning more heavily on their running game down the stretch this season.

The Patriots’ reliance on the run is new, but its success when rushing between the tackles isn't. In their first 14 games this season, the Patriots ranked sixth in the NFL on inside rushes (4.8 yards per carry). New England ranks second with 5.8 yards per interior rush since Week 16 while gaining a league-high 200.3 yards per game on such carries over that span.

Most of the increased workload has gone to Blount, who tripled his interior rushes per game in recent weeks.

Blount averaged 6.1 inside rushes per game in the first 14 games of the season, but 18.3 in New England's past three games. Blount's 130 yards per game inside the tackles since Week 16 are more than all but three other teams over that span.

Blount says a big reason behind the increased workload (64 carries in the past three games) and production (431 rushing yards, eight touchdowns) is a change in his running style:

“Bill [Belichick] told me -- he said the only thing I wasn’t doing right was running with a lower pad level,” Blount said Saturday. “So, I changed that and I started breaking more tackles, started getting a lot of extra yardage after contact.”

Over his past three games, only Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch has averaged more yards after contact per game than Blount.

It will be interesting to see whether the run-first approach that has worked so well recently will carry over to Sunday’s AFC Championship Game in Denver.

The Broncos allowed the NFL’s second-fewest yards per rush on carries up the middle (3.68 yards) during the regular season and have not allowed a rushing touchdown on a carry between the tackles since Week 14 against the Titans.

When the Patriots played the Broncos in the regular season, they had 116 yards rushing on 31 attempts. Blount had just two carries in that Nov. 24 game and lost a fumble.

“We’re coming out and we’re coming up to hit [Blount],” Broncos safety Mike Adams said Monday. “We’ve got to make sure we control the paths more, because we knew he was a good runner [in the first meeting] and he’s still a good runner now.

“Obviously, he’s emerged because he had a couple of big runs. But other than that, it doesn’t change our mentality, because we knew he was a good runner. They’ve got a couple of good backs -- [Stevan] Ridley and the other guy. They had some fumbling problems, but other than that, they’re all good backs.”

Stats: Inside Blount's record game

January, 12, 2014
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The New England Patriots called designed rush plays on 46 of their 73 offensive snaps Saturday (63.0 percent), their highest rate in any postseason game since 2001, and scored a franchise-record six rushing touchdowns. The Patriots ran the ball 41.3 percent of the time in the regular season, 16th in the league.

New England became the third team in NFL history to score at least 43 points in a playoff game without a passing touchdown.

Here are a few more statistical nuggets from LeGarrette Blount's record game (four touchdowns, 166 yards):

• Blount became the first player in NFL history to rush for at least 125 yards and four touchdowns in a postseason game.

• He ran for 166 yards Saturday, 162 of which were gained on runs inside the tackles, fifth most by a player in a game this season. His total tied a franchise record for rushing yards in a playoff game.

• Blount had three of his four touchdown runs against eight or more defenders in the box, tied for the most such touchdowns in a game this season.

• Blount had 146 rush yards before contact, the second-most such yards for a player in a game this season (DeMarco Murray against the Rams in Week 3 -- 149).

Rapid Reaction: New England Patriots

January, 11, 2014
1/11/14
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Sharing thoughts on the New England Patriots' 43-22 divisional-round playoff victory Saturday over the Indianapolis Colts:

What it means: The Patriots advance to the AFC Championship Game for the eighth time in Bill Belichick's 14 years as head coach, which continues a remarkable run of success for Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. Many of the faces around them have changed over the years, but Belichick and Brady have been the constants, and one could make a case this has been their most impressive season as a tandem. The Patriots have been hit as hard by injuries as any team in the NFL, but they've willed their way to put themselves in position to win their first Super Bowl championship since the 2004 season.

Running game sparks attack again: For the third consecutive game, the Patriots' ground attack was the difference-maker, led by hard-charging LeGarrette Blount (franchise-record four rushing touchdowns). The Patriots split snaps at running back evenly among Blount, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, and sliced up the Colts with strong work up front by the offensive line -- left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Logan Mankins, center Ryan Wendell, right guard Dan Connolly and right tackle Marcus Cannon -- as well as tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan and fullback James Develin. When the Patriots run it like this, it brings back memories of the 2004 Super Bowl championship team for which bruiser Corey Dillon was the lead back.

Injuries to monitor: Punter Ryan Allen left the game in the second quarter with a shoulder injury and did not return. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski handled the punting duties, and Brady handled the holder responsibilities as part of the field-goal operation. If Allen is unavailable in the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots would almost certainly bring in another punter. Former Patriot Zoltan Mesko isn't an option, as he punted for the Bengals in the playoffs and isn't eligible to join another team. ... Elsewhere, rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins left the game in the fourth quarter with a head injury (presumably a concussion) and did not return. Veteran Austin Collie was his replacement.

Stock watch: Jamie Collins -- up. The Patriots' top pick in the 2013 draft (52nd overall) was thrust into an expanded role, in part because linebacker Brandon Spikes was placed on season-ending injured reserve earlier in the week. Collins had played just 25 percent of the defensive snaps during the regular season, but he didn't come off the field and made his presence felt as a tackler, pass-rusher and in coverage with an interception. He was all over the field in what was a coming out party for the ultra-athletic defender from Southern Mississippi.

What's next: The Patriots will play in the AFC Championship Game against the winner of Sunday's game between the visiting San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos (4:40 p.m. ET). If Denver beats San Diego, the AFC Championship Game will be played in Denver. If San Diego beats Denver, the AFC Championship Game will be played in New England. Regardless of location, the game will be played at 3 p.m. ET next Sunday.

W2W4: Five things for Colts-Patriots

January, 10, 2014
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After a weekend off, the New England Patriots are set to return to game action on Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts (8:15 ET).

The two teams squaring off reminds us of the days of Tom Brady-Peyton Manning in the postseason, as this will mark the fourth time the two franchises have played in the postseason (by the way: the winner of their three previous postseason matchups has gone on to win the Super Bowl).

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The stakes are obvious for the game, with a spot in the AFC Championship Game on the line. During this same weekend last year, the Patriots found themselves playing a Divisional round game at home with a chance to ensure that the AFC Championship Game would be played inside of Gillette Stadium.

The top-seeded Broncos had been upset by the Ravens on Saturday night, leaving the Patriots and Colts as the highest seeds and thus turning their game into the right to play at home the following weekend.

A win this Saturday night for the Patriots or Colts would open up the door to hosting the AFC Championship Game, though it would take an unlikely upset by the Chargers on Sunday for that to be the case.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves, as Saturday has the feel of a potentially memorable contest.

With kickoff drawing near, here’s a look at what we’ll be watching for.

[+] EnlargeRobert Mathis
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesRobert Mathis led the NFL with 19.5 sacks this season.
1. Solder-Mathis showdown. The Colts’ best defensive player, defensive end Robert Mathis, may just be the top pass-rusher in the NFL. That’s a big job for Patriots left tackle Nate Solder, who said earlier this week that Mathis reminded him -- in some ways -- of Saints defensive end Junior Galette. The Patriots are likely to give Solder some help from time-to-time on Mathis with the utilization of backs chipping and tight ends nudging Mathis before releasing into their patterns, but Solder will also need to be up to the task, as he has been for much of this season.

2. Shadow T.Y.? The Colts’ offense has been depleted by injuries this season, leaving T.Y. Hilton as the most fearsome target for quarterback Andrew Luck. Hilton is a terrific athlete with exceptional speed, which the Patriots have tried to simulate this week in practice by adding Reggie Dunn, who once ran a 4.24 forty. The question that lingers is whether the Patriots will turn to Aqib Talib to shadow Hilton, as he has done with many other wide receivers this season. Hilton doesn’t run exclusively out of the slot, but his role on the inside has picked up since Reggie Wayne went down. Might Talib follow him around the formation? Or will the Patriots turn to multiple defenders to slow him down?

3. The role of former Pats. The Colts brought aboard a familiar face this week in former Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch, adding to a group of former Patriots that now play in Indianapolis. That also includes kicker Adam Vinatieri, who will play in his 25th Patriots-Colts showdown. While Vinatieri’s role is defined, how Branch will be utilized will be interesting to monitor. Given that he was signed this week, it seems plausible Branch might not even be active for the game, but if he is, many eyes will be on number 86 (his jersey number with the Colts) to see how he performs on the field.

4. No safe leads. Every game is worth watching in its entirety, but this one in particular. If we learned anything about the Patriots this season and from the Colts last weekend, it’s that no lead is safe and no game is truly finished until the clock strikes zero. So if either team jumps out early, don’t presume the outcome is decided. The Patriots are fully aware of just how capable Luck is playing from behind, while the Colts know the Patriots have been as gritty as any other team in the NFL in close games this season.

5. Airing it out or ground and pound? Earlier this week, Mike Reiss and I debated over whether the Patriots should air things out against a vulnerable Colts secondary or continue what has worked of late -- the ground game approach led by LeGarrette Blount. The Colts' defense is probably better against the run than it is versus the pass, but that’s not to say the front seven is a dominant group (it allowed 5.1 yards per carry this season, second worst in the NFL). With potential rain in the forecast, slick conditions on the field could make throwing the football difficult, and could lead to a physical showdown at the line of scrimmage. If the Patriots do opt for a ground and pound approach, look for Blount and Stevan Ridley to both be relied upon heavily.

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