FOXBOROROUGH, Mass. — Bill Belichick has coached a number of extremely talented New England Patriots teams over the years, some much more talented than this year’s version.
The 2004 team that beat Philadelphia for the team’s third Super Bowl title in four years simply mauled opponents. The 2007 team was nearly perfect in every phase of the game.
But in Belichick’s 14 years at head coach of the Patriots, no team has been more complete than this year’s version.
Well, no team that Belichick has coached in New England has been as severely tested by injuries, with six starters on the injured reserved list. No team has had more players step up and play pivotal roles than this one. No team has gotten important contributions for almost every player on the 53-man roster, including some who weren’t with the team at the start of the season.
Saturday night’s 43-22 thumping of the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC divisional round was just the latest example.
Days before the game, linebacker Brandon Spikes was placed on IR. That allowed rookie Jamie Collins to get more playing time.
All Collins did was make six tackles, including two for losses, get his first career sack at a pivotal time of the game, and intercept Andrew Luck to set up the Patriots’ final touchdown.
And then there was place kicker Stephen Gostkowski. After punter Ryan Allen had to leave because of a shoulder injury, Gostkowski assumed punting duties for the first time ever. He averaged 41.8 yards on five punts, dropping two inside the 20.
And finally, because Allen is also the holder for Gostkowski’s kicks, the Patriots had to find a replacement. That would be, to nearly everyone’s surprise, Tom Brady, who last held for kicks in college.
“Brady holding, Gostkowski punting, that’s kind of playoff football,’’ said Belichick, almost unimpressed. “Things like that happen. Guys get called on to do something maybe they haven’t done all year, haven’t done in several years, and (they came) through at a big time.’’
This team has filtered in replacements players all year. Rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones stepped in when Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly were lost for the season. While they couldn’t play at the same level as those veterans, they played their roles.
Linebacker Jerod Mayo went down, and Collins and Dane Fletcher stepped in. Fletcher, coming back from a torn ACL a year ago, became a valuable member of the defense and Collins flashed his potential.
As Rob Ninkovich, New England’s big-play defender, said of Collins, “He’s one of those guys that’s got that ‘Wow’ factor.’’
Collins tried to downplay his contributions, saying, “We’re down a man, so you know, next man up.’’
That’s what this team has been about all season. And that’s what makes it so endearing. No one, with the exception of Brady, is irreplaceable,
Starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer went down, and Marcus Cannon stepped in. The Patriots played much of the year without tight end Rob Gronkowski. And while they can’t replace his productivity or impact, Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan have helped in different ways, by being crushing blockers in the Patriots’ newfound smash-mouth offense.
Stevan Ridley, whose fumbling problems caused him to lose the starting running back job to LeGarrette Blount, said everyone pulls for everyone else.
“Without a total team effort,’’ he said, “none of this would be possible.’’
Ridley spoke about Matthew Slater, who is generously listed as being 6 feet tall and weighing 200 pounds. Slater excels at special teams coverage. On Saturday, he was also a lead blocker on Blount’s first touchdown run.
“Matthew Slater is one of those guys, they plug him in there wherever he needs to be and he goes in there and does a great job,’’ said Ridley.
Blount, stolen from Tampa Bay for a seventh-round pick and Jeff Demps (who prefers running track to football), has become the poster child for New England’s playoff push. He scored a team record four rushing touchdowns Saturday and tied a team playoff record with 166 rushing yards. In the final regular-season game, he set a team record with 334 all-purpose yards.
But in a postgame locker room in which he spent at least an hour talking to the media while still in his uniform, he praised just about every other aspect of the offense, especially the offensive line.
Mulligan, the Maine native who threw key blocks on two of Blount’s touchdown runs, said that’s the way it is with this team.
“It’s everyone,’’ he said. “It’s not just one guy. If we were to say (the Patriots won) is because Blount got so many touches, or this guy did that, we’d be mistaken because it takes 10 other guys. Especially on offense. We’ve all got to work together to get that one guy the accolades.’’
In the end, the only accolades that matter fall upon the team. The Patriots will play in their third consecutive AFC championship game on Sunday.
You should enjoy the game for what it is, for what this team has had to overcome.
Of all the trips the Patriots have made to this game since Brady became the quarterback, this is surely the most satisfying.
“I know people have counted us out at times during this year,’’ said Brady. “But I think we have a locker room full of believers.’’
Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at: