Training camp is just around the corner, and we still haven't finished counting down the Top 20 Most Memorable Patriots Moments of 2013. The good news is that we only have four to go, and in my opinion, all four of them are doozies. The Top 3 are clearly where it's at, but this one is no slouch either.
The list so far:
20. The New England Patriots sign Tim Tebow.
19. Aaron Dobson and Aqib Talib help the Patriots lock up a sloppy home opener against the New York Jets.
18. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez depart for Denver and jail, respectively.
17. Michael Hoomanawanui makes a huge one-handed TD grab just before halftime against the Miami Dolphins.
16. The Patriots lose in OT to the Jets, courtesy of an interesting new rule
15. James Develin bowls over the entire Texans defensive line for a rushing touchdown.
14. Tom Brady leads a 4th quarter comeback drive against the Bills to win the 2013 season opener.
13. Kenbrell Thompkins emerges as a receiving threat with a two touchdown day against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
12. A highly questionable non-PI call costs the Patriots a Monday Night Football game against the Carolina Panthers.
11. Devin McCourty and Marquice Cole team up for a volleyball-style interception against the Miami Dolphins.
10. New England engineers a huge second half comeback against the Miami Dolphins.
9. Aqib Talib shuts down Julio Jones and Roddy White in a primetime matchup against the Atlanta Falcons.
8. Shane Vereen has 100+ rushing yards and 58 yards receiving on a broken arm in a comeback win against the Buffalo Bills.
7. The Patriots put up 55 points in their historic beatdown of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
6. LeGarrette Blount goes beast mode against the Buffalo Bills to lock up the 2 seed in the AFC.
5. The Patriots travel to Baltimore and obliterate the Baltimore Ravens.
We head to the playoffs - and to everyone's favorite bruiser - for Number Four.
4. LeGarrette Blount's 4 touchdown day lifts the Patriots past the Colts in the AFC Divisional round.
When the Indianapolis Colts traveled to Foxboro to play the Patriots for the right to head to the AFC Championship Game, they had just completed the second largest comeback in NFL playoff history, overcoming a 28 point deficit to squeak out a 45-44 win. Much of that comeback came via Andrew Luck who, despite his three picks, showed the poise, patience, and toughness that Indy was hoping to get out of him when they drafted him first overall. This was clearly a Colts team that wasn't going to be intimidated or pushed around, and so New England knew they had they work cut out for them if they wanted to make a third consecutive trip to the AFCCG.
Things couldn't have started out much better for the Patriots, as on the third play of the game Luck threw an interception to Alfonzo Dennard, who came within two yards of duplicating the pick-six he had against Luck when the teams met in the 2012 regular season. While it was a poor decision by Luck, Dennard showed great instincts and anticipation when he jumped ahead of the pass, wrestled it away from LaVon Brazil, and headed for the end zone. That Dennard couldn't quite punch it in didn't matter, as Blount scored the touchdown on the very next play with a hard run off the left tackle. More impressive than that run, however, was that the play signified Tommy B's 25th career postseason start, which marked the most ever by a QB (surpassing Brett Favre's 24). A little over a minute off the clock, and the Pats were already up seven.
Indy's next drive didn't fare much better than their first, as a quick three and out forced a punt and gave Brady the ball back at the New England 26. Tommy B would put together a 10 play, 74 yard drive that saw Blount score his second touchdown of the day, another hard run off the left tackle. And while Blount got the glory from the drive, in order to get to get there Brady had to hit Danny Amendola on 3rd and 3 for what ended up being a 16 yard gain; that pass put Brady over the 6,000 career playoff yard mark, making him the first QB ever to do so. New England 14, Colts 0.
However, as evidenced by last week's game, Indy is never out of it and no lead is safe. Despite as rocky a start as you can get, Andrew Luck settled, found his rhythm, and drove 80 yards in under three minutes to hit LaVon Brazil on a beautiful 38 yard strike to cut the lead in half. The Patriots and Colts would trade three and outs on the next two possessions to bring an incredibly exciting first quarter to a close.
New England's next drive may have been their most impressive of the entire game. Not only was it 14 plays and 75 yards long, but it was an absolutely perfect mix of run and pass that had Brady's ability to read a defense on full display. Through a bunch of short runs by Blount, Ridley, and Vereen, Brady was able to keep the defense honest and hit Julian Edelman for a few big gains. Brady was eventually able to set up a first and goal at the two yard line, where Blount dove through the hole to tie a New England franchise record (alongside Curtis Martin) for rushing touchdowns in a single playoff game. Patriots 21, Colts 7. It was exactly the kind of drive the team needed; long, multifaceted, and successful, keeping Luck on the sideline and preventing him from getting into a groove.
And while Blount's run represented the final touchdown of the first half, it wasn't the final score. Indy was able to get a field goal on their next drive, and then a safety on the drive after that when an errant snap sailed over Ryan Allen's head and eventually went out the back of the end zone. Ryan would take the ensuing free kick, but would then leave the game with a broken collarbone. Punting duties for the rest of the matchup were fulfilled - quite admirably - by Stephen Gostkowski.
Down 21-12 with the ball back and over two minutes on the Clock, Luck had the opportunity to bring his team to within less than a field goal before the half; however, a ball thrown slightly behind fullback Stanley Havili bounced off his hands and was intercepted by Dont'a Hightower. New England's defense once again came up big and the Patriots were able to go into the half up by nine.
Unfortunately, in what was something of a theme for the Patriots in the third quarter, the offense opened with a three and out and gave the Colts another chance to get right back in it. Indy was only able to come up with a field goal, however (despite an absolutely textbook pass to T.Y. Hilton for 40 yards on 3rd and 7 to give the offense new life), and the Colts were still down six. Blount was unable to rekindle the kick return magic he had harnessed to close out the season vs. the Bills, and New England started the ensuing drive from the 12.
On 1st and 10, the Patriots lined up in a single back set with Aaron Dobson and Amendola out to Brady's left and Edelman alone on his right. Michael Hoomanawanui went in motion as the line shifted right, suggesting a Stevan Ridley run. Brady and Ridley both sold the playaction perfectly, and almost the entire Colts secondary bit. Meanwhile, Amendola was running a simple slant post across the field, where he was wide open when Brady found him for 53 yards. Just like that, the Patriots were out of a hole and knocking on the door once again. A DPI call on Edelman shortly thereafter set the Patriots up with 1st and goal at the five, and Ridley punched it in for the score two plays later. Brady went back to Ridley for the two point conversion, and the Patriots were back to their two score lead.
That lead didn't last long, however, as Luck was able to drive 80 yards on just three plays, including back to back deep strikes to T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazil for 46 and 35 yards respectively. The entire drive took 1:17, and most of that time was eaten up by linemen jogging up the field after each of Indy's huge gains. It was becoming clear that Luck simply wasn't going to lay down for this game and that the Patriots were going to have to keep scoring. Colts 22, Patriots 29.
That was the way the score would stay until the fourth quarter, as neither offense was able to get anything going on their next three drives.When the Colts punted to the Patriots with 13:08 left in the game, we were all starting to think that maybe the Indy defense had finally figured out a way to stymie the New England rushing attack and it was going to be up to the passing game and the defense to protect the lead.
Those doubts, of course, lasted exactly one play.
On 1st and 10 from the New England 27, Brady lined his offense up in ace formation with Hoo-man and Mulligan bookending the line and Edelman and Amendola lined up to Brady's left. In the backfield was Blount. At the snap, Logan Mankins pulled around Hoo-man to cut off the edge rusher, looking to create a hole off the right tackle. However, the nature of the Indy rush forced Hoo-man's block to the outside, cutting off the running lane just as Blount was receiving the hand-off. Seeing his first option denied, Blount made a quick cut to his left, fired up the A-gap, and simply turned on the afterburners to break into the second level. 73 yards later, he was in the end zone for his 4th rushing TD of the game, a New England franchise record for any game, playoffs or not. New England once again had a two score lead.
The two score lead quickly became three, as Luck's very first pass of his ensuing drive was intercepted by Jamie Collins and returned 20 yards to the Indy 18. Ridley was able to score a franchise record sixth rushing touchdown five short plays later, and New England was up 43-22 (courtesy of an absolutely stellar holding job by Tommy B on the extra point. Is there anything he can't do?). That's the way the score would stay, and the Patriots were off to the AFC Championship Game for the third straight year.
When I first decided to put this game in my Top 5, I struggled as to whether or not I should focus on Blount's performance of Jamie Collins's. And while I ultimately chose Blount, as his 24 touches for 166 yards and four scores was the primary reason the Patriots won the game, if there are those out there who think that I should have given Collins his due instead, I certainly won't argue with you. His stat line doesn't jump off the page - three tackles, three assists, one sack, and a pick - but all of his tackles and big plays came at absolutely crucial moments and helped lift the defense up when they needed a boost. He was all over the field, his athleticism was on full display, and the game basically served as his coming out party for those who maybe didn't know who he was just yet. In fact, Collins's day was enough to rank him at Number 5 on NFL.com's list of players poised to break out in 2014, and so he gets an very, very honorable mention here to say the least. However, I'm still giving Blount the nod here with his franchise record four TDs, his multiple third down conversions, and his ability to open up the playaction. Collins was a huge factor, but this game was won on Blount's legs, and because of that, I feel good putting this one at Number 4.
Perhaps the main reason I have this game ranked so high is because of the way I felt after it was over. I was legitimately asking myself and anyone who would listen "how the hell is anyone going to stop this guy?" Blount had been steadily building momentum as the season wore on, and this game seemed to be the stamp on an already impressive resume for any team looking for a power back in 2014. Sure, everyone was hurt and Brady's receivers didn't really scare anybody, but when you had a back like Blount, none of that seemed to matter. Obviously, things didn't work out to well the following week, as Aqib Talib went down and left New England completely unable to stop the Broncos and were thus forced to abandon the run pretty early, but in the days leading up to that game Blount gave me the kind of confidence I hadn't really had since Gronk went down. Sometimes a Top Patriots Moment is about more than just the game, and this is definitely one of those times.
Full game highlights here.