FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- WHEN Tom Brady won his first playoff game with the Patriots, on that snowy 2002 night in the old stadium, LeGarrette Blount was a freshman at his Florida high school, with three seasons still to play for Taylor County before a roller coaster ride that took him on a track through junior college, the University of Oregon and a turbulent start to his pro career in Tampa Bay.
He was a long way from where he wound up Saturday night, which was behind Brady and starring for the Patriots in a performance owned by Blount and others who were at such a distance they couldn’t have conceived of being part of New England’s historic run among the NFL’s elite when it all began a dozen years ago — but whose roles in beating the Colts speak to just how remarkable a run this has really been.
And how incredible it is that while the names and the faces may have changed, as a new generation of athletes has entered the game, the principles, the foundation and the results have remained the same for a duration that’s supposed to be impossibly long in this age of pro football.
The NFL is structured in a way to discourage sustainability. To give every team a chance. Yet with six rushing touchdowns leading to a 43-22 win over the Colts, the Patriots will next Sunday play their third straight AFC championship game — and their eighth in the last 13 years, this latest time entrusting their hopes of getting to a sixth Super Bowl to Brady, and to coach Bill Belichick, of course.
But also to guys like Blount, and Stevan Ridley, and the others who stepped up in the divisional round to start carving out their own legacy within a gilded sequence that began when they were merely kids.
“This year we have a group of guys that have been through a lot, from the beginning all the way to now, we’ve been through a ton — and we’ve found a way to win,” said Ridley. “People sit there and try to count us out, but we have a tremendous coaching staff and we have guys that are hungry and wanting to play. That’s what you need if you want to get where we want to get to.”
When Brady won his first playoff game with the Patriots, Ridley was in Mississippi, a few weeks from becoming a teenager. Saturday night, though, he was adding two touchdowns of his own to the four that Blount scored on the ground, and helping New England to amass 234 rushing yards over 45 fumble-free attempts.
Behind that tandem the team has now totaled 501 rushing yards over its past two games, and while that’s a departure from the way the Patriots have been winning for most of the past six years, it marks something of a return to the way the Pats attacked a decade ago, when balance and toughness were the trademarks of their offensive approach, and the dividends were paid in rings.
When Brady won the first of those titles, Nate Solder was a ski racer who’d just started getting into football. Saturday night, though, he was New England’s left tackle, and a cornerstone of the offensive line that created the holes for all of that yardage. He deserves credit for the success of the Pats’ ground game this season.
Only two AFC teams averaged more than their 4.4 yards per carry during the regular season, while no team in the conference ran for more scores than their 19, and only one team in NFL history has paved the way for more touchdowns in a playoff game than they did Saturday — while also limiting the impact of Robert Mathis, the league’s leading sacker this season.
“If it leads to a win,” Solder said, “there’s a lot of pride.”
When Brady started compiling his record 18 postseason wins, Alfonzo Dennard still hadn’t even taken up the sport, which he wouldn’t do until a few years later, when he was a sophomore in high school. Saturday, though, he helped the Patriots set the tone right away by intercepting Andrew Luck on Indianapolis’ first series. Then he helped nail the coffin closed with another pick in the fourth quarter.
In between those thefts the Colts prodigious quarterback was also intercepted by Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, who was himself just a fifth grader in little McCall Creek, Miss., when Brady won his first playoff game as a Patriot — then turned Saturday night into his own personal coming-out party.
The role of the second-round rookie has increased as injuries have hit New England’s linebacking corps over the course of the campaign. Against the Colts, Collins’ progression was apparent. On top of the interception, he had a sack, two tackles for loss, three hits on Luck, and showed terrific ability in solo coverage of Indy’s tight end.
It looked like the type of rise-to-the-challenge performance the Patriots have enjoyed frequently in big games through the years — but hardly a surprise to the teammates who’ve seen it in practice and preach a next-man-up mentality.
“He has been getting better week by week,” safety Devin McCourty said. “That’s what it’s about. Our young guys have worked their butts off all year and they’re cashing that in now.”
When Brady was one of those young guys, and won his first playoff game with the Patriots, Julian Edelman was a freshman quarterback at his high school in Woodside, Calif. Saturday, though, the receiver converted three third downs, two by catch and another by penalty, and furthered his reputation as Brady’s go-to guy with a team-high six grabs.
Brady completed only seven other balls, and didn’t throw for a score, but Edelman was quick to praise his QB’s role in the run game and his impact on the attack. “A lot of people don’t understand,” he said, “that when you have a quarterback who can go out there and put you in the right play every time, good things are going to happen.”
When good things really started happening for the organization, and Brady won his first playoff game as a Patriot, Charles Barkley had been retired from the NBA for almost two years after a hall-of-fame career that infamously ended without a title. Saturday, though, he was in the Patriots locker room as a guest of Belichick.
And as an admirer of what the franchise has become.
“The thing about sports that I really love, I want my team to have a chance every year,” Barkley said. “That’s all I want for my team. The Patriots every year have a legitimate shot to win it every year. That’s pretty cool.
“When Bill Belichick leaves and Tom Brady leaves, y’all team is going to (bleeping) (stink).”
Maybe. But until then, it doesn’t seem to matter who leaves. Or where their replacement was when this all began so long ago.
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.