List the players to be given credit for the Patriots 45-7 blowout of the Colts in Sunday night's AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium, and plenty of names probably roll right off the tongue.
Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Darrelle Revis – New England's title-driven triumvirate of stars – all made key contributions. LeGarrette Blount ran roughshod. Kyle Arrington once again owned T.Y. Hilton. Nate Solder tricked his way into the conversation. Blue-collar types James Develin and Rob Ninkovich did their part. The praiseworthy options are almost never-ending.
But you'd have to get pretty far down the list – and maybe never get there at all – to come up with backup linebacker and core special teams player Darius Fleming.
Yet, an argument can be made that Fleming's quick reflexes helped ensure the Patriots would take advantage of an early Colts mistakes that doomed the upstart underdog visitors from nearly the get-go.
After Indy opened the game with a three-and-out on offense, the Colts defense forced Brady and Co. into the same scenario. And when Ryan Allen punted the ball just a mere 27 yards to the Colts 22, it could have been a good omen for Chuck Pagano's young team.
On a night that included rain, moist balls and at-times impactful winds, Indy returner Josh Cribbs was overly aggressive in his attempt to come up and catch the short punt. The ball bounced right off his facemask for a muff. Just a few minutes earlier Julian Edelman had pulled off his own aggressive approach to the Colts punt, choosing to let the ball bounce before he grabbed it and returned it 20 yards.
Maybe the winds were an issue, even for two of the best, most productive punt returners of this era.
But Cribbs' muffed ball never had a chance to hit the turf, never had a chance for the Colts to regain possession. Instead Fleming scooped the ball out of the air for the huge early turnover, showing impressive reactions skills and hands to ensure there would be no missed opportunity for an early big play in the kicking game.
As has been the case all year, New England's special teams unit came up big once again. The Patriots took over at the Colts 26. A few plays later LeGarrette Blount opened the game's scoring with a 1-yard touchdown, his first of three on the night.
An early defensive stop and drive could have given Andrew Luck and his team momentum on a night when they were expected to need nearly a perfect performance to pull off the upset. Instead the veteran returner Cribbs muffed away the Colts chances, while Fleming was ready to pounce and take full advantage.
Small plays can lead to big wins. Sure the Patriots may have blown out the Colts with or without Cribbs' muff and Flemings quick reactions. But you never know.
And for that Fleming deserves to have his name added to the list of key contributors in Sunday's win that propelled the Patriots on to Seattle, on to Arizona for Super Bowl XLIX.
It's just the type of performance and play that is perfect for Take Two-sday recognition during the bye week leading up to Super Bowl madness and the Patriots march toward another Lombardi Trophy.