- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Run, LeGarrette, run!
Tom Brady was cool with it. So was coach Bill Belichick, once his running back took his advice midseason and lowered his pad level so his 250-pound frame wouldn't be so easy to haul down.
"Once I changed that, I started breaking tackles," explained LeGarrette Blount, New England's newly minted all-time franchise leader in single-game postseason rushing touchdowns (four). The Patriots rode Blount's sturdy legs past the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night in a 43-22 playoff victory that propelled them into the AFC Championship Game next Sunday.
Coming into this game, the Colts were ranked 26th in the league in rushing defense, relinquishing a gaudy 5.1 yards per carry. So it was hardly a shock that New England decided to run the ball on a day when high winds and driving rain descended on Gillette Stadium.
But rushing it 46 times? For 234 yards and six touchdowns? For a team whose resident legend and future Hall of Famer just happens to be a quarterback?
The Patriots have just advanced to the AFC title game with a victory in which Brady did not throw a single touchdown pass.
"If you told me that before the game, I would not have believed that," Blount admitted.
The glitzy Brady-versus-Andrew Luck story never materialized, but don't make the mistake of thinking Brady failed to put his stamp on this game. His fingerprints were all over it, even when he was merely handing off the ball. He established tempo, audibled when he needed to and happily watched his running backs flourish.
Brady submitted a tidy, efficient performance (13-of-25 for 198 yards) that included some pinpoint passes in traffic to Julian Edelman and a 53-yard play action bomb to Danny Amendola when they caught Indianapolis' secondary nodding off.
"I think because we were running the ball so well, maybe that got a little reaction and Danny got behind them," Brady said.
In the first half alone, the Patriots ran the ball 25 times and threw it just 11 times, yet the running backs' average was a modest 3.2 yards a carry. Who would have questioned offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels if he put the ball in Brady's hands more for the final two quarters?
"I wouldn't have blamed him if he went to Tom," Blount said with a shrug. "He's the best quarterback in the game."
Instead, McDaniels stuck to his game plan. He reminded Blount, Stevan Ridley et al that the 2-yard and 3-yard gains wear down the defense and eventually lay the groundwork for the crack in coverage that allows for the big gain.
"We always want to be the most physical team, so when we have the opportunity to go in there and really pound the rock -- McDaniels really likes to do that," explained tight end Mike Mulligan. "I really liked that he stayed with it and gave us the opportunity to seize the moment." On a night of big moments, none was more stunning than Blount's 73-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter when the Patriots were holding tight to a tenuous 29-22 advantage. Blount's bulldozed his way behind his stellar offensive line, cut right, found daylight and kept running until he reached the end zone, thereby setting a new Patriots franchise record of four rushing touchdowns in one postseason game.
"If you can get the guy through the line of scrimmage and then break a tackle or make a guy miss, that's where you get the long ones," Belichick said. "Good backs do that. They make some of those yards on their own -- step to the line, the backs and the tight ends get them started, get them some space and let them do their thing."
Blount was doing his thing, alright. The bruising back exhibited glimmers of his explosiveness in wins over Atlanta and Buffalo, but in his first career playoff game he was the most dominant player on a field that included some noteworthy candidates.
While Blount's national Q rating took a quantum leap, his friend Ridley experienced his own resurrection. Ridley's fumble woes left him on the sideline for huge chunks of this season, but on Saturday, Ridley nestled the football tightly to his body, held on to it "'til death do us part" and punched his way into the end zone twice. He finished with 14 carries for 52 yards.
"Keep stacking them," Ridley exclaimed. "I already told LeGarrette, 'Let's go for seven [touchdowns] next week.'"
Each rushing yard proved to be significant because young Luck, whose lanky frame and 19th-century beard afforded him the look of an odd combination between Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Schrute's cousin Mose from the beet farm, exhibited flashes of brilliance, often in the face of the cranky elements. His back-to-back throws to T.Y. Hilton (for 47 yards) and then a 35-yard strike to LaVon Brazill for a touchdown were excellent examples of his startling abilities. Yet Luck limped off with four interceptions and was limited by New England's defense to just one rush for 5 yards. Turnovers in the playoffs almost never translate into wins.
Blount, meanwhile, finished with 166 yards (a 6.9 yards-per-carry average). Blount submitted a 1,000-yard season in his rookie campaign in Tampa Bay, but his occasional immaturity and the team's decision to draft Doug Martin made him expendable there.
His former Bucs teammate Aqib Talib insisted Saturday night that Blount has always been a quality back capable of breaking the game open.
"He's the same guy," Talib said. "I saw him do this all the time in Tampa Bay. You guys just didn't see it because the games were always blacked out there."
Blount is best known for a regrettable college incident at Oregon in which he sucker punched Boise State player Byron Hout. An outraged Chip Kelly originally suspended Blount for the rest of the season before eventually reducing it to eight games.
That blemish will permanently stick to him like an unwanted tattoo, but even during those dark days, he said, he still envisioned an NFL career of prosperity.
"I always thought it could happen," Blount said. "There wasn't a doubt in my mind I was going to get a chance. It all worked out."
There will be more chances going forward. As Blount himself explained, the Patriots' stable of backs includes a rotating system in which he, Ridley and Shane Vereen share snaps. The running game has provided healthy balance to an offense decimated by injuries to its receivers. Kenbrell Thompkins was the latest casualty to be carted off on Saturday (he left with a head injury), and based on the NFL's new concussion protocol, it's hard to imagine him being available next Sunday.
So you know what that means: Run, LeGarrette, run!
The Patriots have a new blueprint for success thanks to LeGarrette Blount.