Foxborough, Mass. - The Patriots got the best of both worlds from their running game Sunday, and it couldn't have come at a better time.
Head coach Bill Belichick has gone on the record as saying the Patriots running game this season is the best he has seen since he arrived in New England, and the Patriots needed every yard of it in Sunday's 20-3 win over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Divisional playoffs. Corey Dillon continued his career-best season by turning in another solid performance with 144 yards on 23 carries in his first career playoff game, while Kevin Faulk returned from a two-game absence to add 56 yards on 11 carries as the Patriots averaged 5.4 yards per carry and rushed for 210 total yards against the Colts. Those numbers represented the second-highest totals of the season in both categories for the Patriots.
"We wanted to set the tone up front, and the offensive line did that," Faulk said. "From that, we just ran the ball. With the way the offensive line played, it doesn't matter who was back there. Anyone could have run the ball today. That's just how well they were doing up front."
Faulk's return from a knee injury added a missing element to the Patriots offense. Nearly a month after injuring his MCL against the Miami Dolphins on December 20, he played a critical role in several of the Patriots scoring drives. Faulk rushed twice for 19 yards to help set up a 24-yard second quarter field goal by Adam Vinatieri, giving the Patriots a 3-0 lead. He gave the Colts defense a different look by alternating with Dillon during the Patriots first touchdown drive in the third quarter, rushing five times for 25 yards before quarterback Tom Brady found David Givens for a 5-yard touchdown to give the Patriots a 13-3 lead. His only reception of the game was an 11-yard gain on a key third down play early in the fourth quarter, a drive that was capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Brady.
"Kevin did a nice job," Belichick said. "He really had good run vision a lot of times. This is the type of team, because they stunt and penetrate so much, that really you want a back who has good vision that can see those openings and not just run into the whole. It isn't always there where it's supposed to be. A lot of times it ends up opening up somewhere else. Kevin did a great job of that. He showed a lot of quickness and cut back ability."
Faulk, who was questionable on the injury report leading up to the game, said there was never any question he was going to play and added he didn't have any second thoughts regarding his injured knee.
"Once the game started, I wasn't even worried about it," Faulk said. "That's something I didn't even think about. Before the game you think about it, but once the lights turn on it's something you don't even think about at all."
Both Faulk and Dillon took advantage of cut back lanes and porous tackling by the Colts to help the Patriots control the clock. The Patriots held the ball for 21:26 in the second half alone, nearly a 13 minute differential, as both touchdown drives last over seven minutes. After starting slow, the Patriots were able to sustain the running game by wearing down the Colts defense. Dillon broke a 42-yard run to set up Vinatieri's 30-yard field goal in the second quarter, and later had a 27-yard gain in the fourth quarter to set up Brady's touchdown. Dillon's performance was his second-highest output of the season and also the second-highest single-game total in team playoff history.
"It reminded me when I was growing up as a kid of Earl Campbell," linebacker Ted Johnson said of Dillon. "He's a guy that just pounds at you and pounds at you. You think there's no gas left in his tank, and he comes back the next play and drives another shoulder into you. That's fun to watch. I'm going to go out and get a jersey. Me and [Tedy] Bruschi were talking about it - we're going to go get Corey Dillon jerseys. What he did tonight was great."
A Stellar Second Half
Belichick could barely contain his grin when he approached the podium for his post-game press conference inside Gillette Stadium. Leading the Colts 6-3 at the end of a very competitive first half, the Patriots scored 14 unanswered points in the second half, turning a good performance into a dominant one in which the Colts managed two punts and two turnovers in four possessions after halftime. Belichick called it the best half of football the Patriots had played this season.
"I thought they have a tremendous effort out there today," Belichick said. "We came in at halftime, and everybody released we needed our best 30 minutes of football of the season in that second half. I really thought we got it. Everybody did an outstanding job. I'm really proud of those players. We have a lot of tough guys in that locker room. It was an awesome performance. I think that was certainly our best 30 minutes of football this season."
Questions regarding the health of defensive end Richard Seymour were answered when the Patriots deactivated the three-time Pro Bowler prior to Sunday's game. The status of Seymour's left knee injury and his availability for today's game have been in question since he suffered the injury nearly three weeks ago on Dec. 26. Seymour originally suffered the injury during the second quarter against the New York Jets when center Kevin Mawae fell into his left knee while making a block. Seymour was upgraded to questionable on the Patriots injury report this week, even though the team reported he missed parts portions of "team practice" on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Seymour was voted to third consecutive Pro Bowl this season after registering 67 tackles and five sacks in 15 regular season games. He was replaced in the starting lineup by third-year defensive end Jarvis Green, while rookie Vince Wilfork also saw time at end.
"He's a stud," Johnson said. "That guy is the best, in my opinion, in what he does. Obviously it's a huge loss. This team has just been able to do it. We've always had guys who have been able to fill in and step up at critical times. That's been a big part of what makes this team so successful. This year, with all the injuries we've had, it's unbelievable."
Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi always seems to make his presence felt against the Colts. One of Sunday's key plays was courtesy of Bruschi, who forced the game's first turnover when he stripped Colts' running back Dominic Rhodes of the ball on a screen pass midway through the second quarter. The turnover ended an Indianapolis drive on the Patriots 39-yard line. With just less than seven minutes remaining in the game, Bruschi jumped on a Reggie Wayne fumble forced by linebacker Roman Phifer. Bruschi forced three fumbles during the regular season - one of which was returned for a touchdown by Seymour against Buffalo in Week 4, while another was recovered by Green in the end zone for a touchdown against Baltimore.
Talking About The Weather
Perhaps it was a sign when the weather conditions worsened just before kickoff at Gillette Stadium. The game time temperature was 25 degrees, with a 16-degree wind chill factor. Light snow began falling approximately 45 minutes prior to kickoff, but was not accumulating at the start of the game and didn't affect the field conditions during the first half. It continued in the second half, becoming blustery at times, but didn't appear to affect game conditions. The Patriots are now 8-0 all-time in snowy conditions in Foxborough, and improved to 21-2 since 1993 when the temperature at kickoff is 35 degrees or colder.
"I think that is was only fitting that it snowed," said linebacker Mike Vrabel, who noted the field conditions and footing were decent. "I don't think the temperature was a factor. But I certainly think the field conditions, the crowd, the way we played, I think it had a lot to do with it."
Early Penalties Costly
The Patriots were hurt by several penalties during the first half, the most costly a false start penalty on left tackle Matt Light that negated a touchdown run by Dillon. Still scoreless early in the second quarter, the Patriots temporally took the lead when Dillon capped a 15-play, 78-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run. The referee whistled the play dead before the snap, however, calling Light for a 5-yard false start. The penalty ultimately cost the Patriots four points, as Vinatieri came in to kick a 24-yard field goal.
Fullback Patrick Pass left the game with 8:42 remaining in the first quarter with an apparent right leg injury but was able to return in the second half. Pass was injured while blocking for Dillon on a play that lost two yards, as Dillon landed on Pass' right ankle when he was tackled to end the play. Pass, who appeared to be clutching his right ankle as he lay on the turf, had to be helped off the field.
Game Day Deactivations
The Patriots deactivated eight players from active roster prior to the game: Seymour; wide receiver Kevin Kasper; running back Cedric Cobbs; cornerback Earthwind Moreland; defensive back Antwan Harris; tight end Jed Weaver and defensive tackle Ethan Kelley. Jim Miller was designated the Patriots third quarterback.
The Patriots had three changes in the starting lineup while starting the game in a three receiver, one-back set. Troy Brown started for Givens, Christian Fauria started at tight end in place of Daniel Graham, and wide receiver Bethel Johnson was in the lineup instead of Pass. Reserve quarterback Rohan Davey and rookie defensive end Marquise Hill were the only active players who did not play.
Sunday marked the 115th consecutive sellout in Foxborough including preseason, regular-season and postseason games. ... The Patriots have won seven consecutive playoff games, tying the second longest winning streak in NFL playoff history. New England is two victories shy of the all-time record of nine straight playoff wins, accomplished by the Green Bay Packers from 1961-67. ... The Patriots also won their 20th consecutive home game and improved to 7-1 all-time at home in the playoffs. The 20 consecutive wins mark the longest current home winning streak in the NFL. ... Brady completed 18-of-27 passes for 144 yards and one touchdown. ... Dillon led the Patriots with a season-high five receptions for 17 yards. ... Givens scored the game's first touchdown on a 5-yard pass from Brady with 1:30 left in the third quarter. The touchdown was his third career post-season score, tying him with Stanley Morgan for the franchise record. ... Safety Rodney Harrison had a team-high 11 tackles and recorded the game's only interception. ... Defensive back Hank Poteat made his debut for the Patriots.