FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Jamie Collins was dressed for the world outside Gillette Stadium. Saturday night’s football game was done, the Patriots had won and their rookie linebacker was ready to run out the door.
Not so fast, he was reminded. For probably the first time all season, Collins had to answer to his performance. His six tackles were only two fewer than Dont’a Hightower’s, the team leader. He intercepted Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck once, running 20 yards on the return. He pressured Luck all night long.
The Patriots are one game away from going to the Super Bowl in New Jersey because up and down the lineup – on offense, on defense and special teams – players saw themselves as the next man up.
Rookies or little-used veterans or starters took on the three simple words with the mountain of responsibility: Next man up.
The AFC championship game on the road against the favored Denver Broncos is Sunday afternoon. Who’s the next man up?
Collins was in the AFC divisional playoff game because Brandon Spikes wasn’t. Collins was the next man up. The understudy, the spare part on a playoff team that was dipping into the spare part bin too much.
Spikes had a bad knee and if you listened to the national media, a bad attitude. Coach Bill Belichick put Spikes on the injured reserve list, meaning he won’t play again in the postseason.
Then Belichick beckoned to Collins. It’s your turn. It’s your time, son.
After the Patriots beat the Colts 43-22, the locker room was full of smiles but not in the place where Collins dresses. For the first time all night he looked uncomfortable. What did he think? How did he feel?
This wasn’t a regular-season game in October. These are the pressure games, each victory putting a team closer to the Super Bowl, each loss ending a season.
“Every game is the same to me,” said Collins, conscious how the words were coming out. “Just go out there, do what you have to do and hopefully it comes out on the positive end.
“We’re down a man so you know, next man up. That’s the way I look at it. Next man up.”
It’s the mantra for anyone who plays a team sport from pee wees to high school, college and the elites in the pros. Someone goes down, someone has to take their place. You can pay lip service to the concept or embrace it. Tom Brady was the next man up when Drew Bledsoe was hurt. Matt Cassel was the next man up when Brady injured his knee.
Maine native Matt Mulligan was next man up when Belichick found himself with too few tight ends. Rookie Joe Vellano gets his opportunity when nose tackle Vince Wilfork, the rock of the defense, goes down with a season-ending injury. Austin Collie gets the call when rookie wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins are hurt.
The NFL forever chews up depth charts. The Patriots aren’t spared but Belichick has the gift of usually finding the players who absorb his coaching most while waiting their turn. Team over the individual has dictated how Belichick does things as general manager or head coach.
“That’s what your ultimate goal is, to get a chance,” said Rob Ninkovich, the linebacker who has emerged as the leader on defense. “Everyone that’s on a football team is hungry to be on the field and play. When I was a guy that just got here and was running down kickoffs (on special teams), I wanted to be on the field on defense.”
Eric Alexander signed as a free agent in 2004 and bounced between practice squad and active roster for two seasons. His first start? The 2007 AFC title game against the Colts and Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. He led the team with 10 solo tackles playing inside linebacker but couldn’t keep pace with the Colts’ furious second-half comeback.
The Patriots lost. Sometimes the next man up can have his hands too full.
The Patriots’ star players have a role, the spare parts have a role, and Belichick will swap one for the other if it makes the Patriots better. That’s not complicated. It’s why former linebacker Mike Vrabel caught touchdown passes, and Troy Brown and Julian Edelman switched from catching passes to knocking them down.
Jamie Collins, the Patriots’ first draft choice in 2013, stepped up Saturday night. Who’s the next man up?
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: