AP FILE PHOTO
New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount is touchdown-bound during the second half of last week’s divisional playoff in Foxborough, Mass.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Belichick. Brady. And now Blount.
You’ve known the first two for more than a decade, possibly the best in the business at what they do. Now you know the third, the rejuvenated running back who will carry the ball and much of the New England Patriots’ hopes on his broad shoulders.
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the winningest coach-quarterback duo in NFL history, are in the AFC championship game for the eighth time in their 14 seasons together.
They’ll need more to beat the Denver Broncos on Sunday and they should get plenty from LeGarrette Blount, the bulldozer with breakaway speed who powers the Patriots’ charge toward their second Super Bowl in three years.
“The way he’s running, the way we’ve blocked offensively, it’s never a problem for me to check to a run because they’re executing it so well,” Brady said.
The 250-pound Blount struggled the last time he faced the Broncos, a game the Patriots won 34-31 in overtime Nov. 24. He carried the ball three times and lost it twice. The first fumble was reversed on replay. So Brady gave him the ball on the next play, he fumbled again and no replay was needed to confirm Denver’s recovery.
But now Blount is barreling for long touchdowns: 73, 36 and 35 yards in the past two games. In his last three games, he gained 431 yards on 64 carries for eight touchdowns with just one fumble that was recovered by the Patriots.
And they won those by 34, 14 and 21 points.
“We’ll just have to gang tackle,” Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton side. “He’s getting to the second level untouched because their (offensive) line is doing a good job of getting a hat on a hat and controlling their one guy.”
It will be tougher to stop Blount with Chris Harris, Von Miller, Rahim Moore, Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe all sidelined.
Left guard Logan Mankins, a six-time Pro Bowler with a mean streak, sets the tone for the Patriots’ veteran offensive line that has been intact nearly all season.
Sure, the Broncos allowed only 65 yards rushing last Sunday in their 24-17 divisional-round win over San Diego. But Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers handed the ball off just four times after falling behind 14-0 at halftime and nearly completed an improbable comeback.
That’s nothing compared with the 24-0 hole the Patriots found themselves in at intermission two months ago against Denver. But they climbed out of that. They also beat Miami after trailing by 14 at halftime and Cleveland after trailing by 12 in the final two minutes.
Should adversity strike Sunday, the Patriots will be prepared.
“We’ve won a bunch of different ways,” Brady said. “We’ve won coming from behind, we’ve won with leads, we’ve won in pretty crappy weather conditions. You just fight through whatever it takes.”
The Patriots certainly have done that on defense.
They lost key starters Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly in the first half of the season. Brandon Spikes joined them on injured reserve after the last regular-season game.
But their replacements have been solid while gaining experience, and the secondary is the healthiest part of the defense — good news for a team facing the highest-scoring offense in NFL history, led by Peyton Manning and four players with at least 60 catches.
Manning had his worst game of the season in the teams’ first matchup. But with a strong wind and Knowshon Moreno gaining 224 of Denver’s 280 yards rushing, the ground attack was the way to go.
The Patriots learned their lesson.
“We can’t let them run for 230 yards and think that we’re going to come out with a win again,” safety Devin McCourty said.
The danger in focusing on the run is that Manning would throw more. The upside is that he’s 4-10 in his career against Brady, with a poor 61.0 passer rating with one win in three postseason games against New England.
Should all else fail, of course, there’s Brady, who found new targets this season in Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen.
“We’ve become a pretty good run team,” the star quarterback and astute field general said. “Hopefully, we can be a pretty good pass team this weekend, too.”
And there’s Belichick.
“He’s maintained a consistency,” Broncos coach John Fox said, “and done a better job than anybody in the modern era of football.”
And, of course, there’s now Blount.
“The offense is definitely clicking,” he said. “We’ve been getting hot at the right time of the year.”
PREDICTION: Patriots 38, Broncos 31
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
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