Patriot tough: Grit carries New England to bye
New England Patriots running back Shane Vereen, center, celebrates his touchdown against the Buffalo Bills with Danny Amendola (80) and James Develin (46) in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount runs against the Buffalo Bills in the second quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – LeGarrette Blount carries defenders with him. Logan Mankins misses just one series after hurting his ankle. Tom Brady drives his team to last-minute victories.
These New England Patriots are one tough bunch.
“You’ve got to deal with adversity,” wide receiver Danny Amendola said. “We’ve got a lot of tough guys in this locker room, that’s for sure.”
There’s the 250-pound Blount, who rushed for 189 yards and returned two kickoffs for 145 in New England’s 34-20 win over Buffalo last Sunday.
There’s the 308-pound Mankins, a five-time Pro Bowl guard who blocked two Bills to spring Blount for a 36-yard touchdown run moments before being helped off the field with the injury.
And there are rookies and unheralded free agents who contributed when the Patriots lost key defensive players Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly for the season before it was half over and other starters for shorter periods.
The Patriots “never quit, never felt sorry for ourselves, never just went in a corner and said we wanted to hide,” said one of those replacements, tight end Matthew Mulligan.
That approach helped the Patriots (12-4) earn the second seed in the AFC playoffs and a first-round bye.
“We’ve had other tough, competitive teams,” Coach Bill Belichick said yesterday. “I don’t know where one ranks or the other ranks but I certainly think this team has shown examples of that many times. ... I think we’re going to need it going forward.”
Not knowing their next opponent, players are spending the week practicing and allowing their bruised bodies to rest. The Patriots will find out late Sunday afternoon which team they play in Foxborough the night of Jan. 11.
It will be Cincinnati if the Bengals beat the San Diego Chargers that day. Otherwise, they’ll host the winner of Saturday’s wild-card game between Indianapolis and Kansas City.
Either way, the competition will be much stiffer than what the Patriots faced much of the regular season when they met only four teams who finished with winning records. And they lost, 13-6, at Cincinnati, their only potential division-round opponent they faced.
But they’ve already overcome many challenges.
They won the season opener against Buffalo, 23-21, on a field goal with five seconds left. They overcame a 24-point halftime deficit against Denver and won, 34-31, in overtime. They came from 12 points back and beat Cleveland, 27-26, with two touchdowns, the last after they recovered an onside kick, in the final 61 seconds.
“I think this is one of the most mentally tough teams I’ve been on through the close games that we’ve played,” said defensive end Rob Ninkovich, an eight-year veterans, “because the games that you win by three, one, those are games that take a lot out of you and we just keep coming back every week.”
The Patriots didn’t have to do that last Sunday when they never trailed. But they did have to complete passes, kick field goals and keep their footing throughout a game-long downpour.
“It doesn’t get much tougher than that as far as rain goes,” said Stephen Gostkowski, who made all four of his field-goal attempts. “You’ve just got to increase your focus.”
On a day when it was tough to throw a wet ball, Blount led the way with a team record 334 all-purpose yards.
“Even if he wasn’t blocking someone, he was running someone over,” left tackle Nate Solder said.
That’s just how Blount plays.
“It’s a mindset and the will of what’s at stake and the urgency that we have to have to continue to be successful, and how important this first-round bye was,” he said. “It was one of our best games by our offensive line. ... You can’t say enough about those guys, they’re tough.”
None more so than Mankins.
“I’ve coached a lot of tough guys. I don’t think there’s any that I would put ahead of him,” Belichick said. “Any time Logan needs help getting off the field, you feel like it’s something serious.”
So he was surprised when trainer Jim Whelan told him Mankins was ready to go back in after sitting out one series.
“He’s a tough individual, tough-minded, physically and mentally tough,” Belichick said. “I think we have a lot of that on our team.”