Curran: Belichick's dark cloud has lifted


Curran: Belichick's dark cloud has lifted

INDIANAPOLIS - Wait, help me out. Fourth-and-2 is in play? We can mention that with impunity and make it a punch line?
Because Ive heard some things.I remember back in 2001 when Bill Belichick looked at the assembled media in the soon-to-be-euthanized Foxboro Stadium and said, The strength of the wolf is in the pack.I remember the night before Super Bowl XXXVI when I sat in a Holiday Inn near the French Quarter and Bill Belichick told me by telephone, The hay is in the barn, and that he felt as confident before playing the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl the next day as he did the week previous when his team upset the Steelers in the AFC Championship.Back then the Patriots were upstarts. Lightly taken and soon to be dismissed.Except Belichick didnt believe that. Earlier in the season he noted in the wolf statement that the 2001 team was better than the sum of its unimpressive parts.But back then, the Patriots were just another upstart team on a hot streak. Still, to Belichick and his players Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown, Ty Law, Tom Brady, Lawyer Milloy, Roman Phifer, Willie McGinest, Adam Vinatieri and so many others on that team there was something special afoot.Belichick didnt believe the Patriots would be overwhelmed by the Rams in the Super Bowl when the dynasty that he and Tom Brady (and a whole lot of others) created was still in the birth canal.He gave off an air in the first week of February 2001 as the Patriots approached their first Super Bowl with Belichick as head coach that said, Were going to be fine.They were. And they continued to be through the first decade of the 21st century. Two more Super Bowl wins. An NFL record 21-game winning streak. Legitimacy as a team that needed to be included in the all-time greatest discussions with the Packers of the '60s, the Steelers of the '70s, the Niners of the '80s and '90s, and the Cowboys of the '90s.The tenor and expectations changed after 2001. A team and program as good as the one Belichick spawned in New England went from Cinderella to supermodel.But as the stakes were raised, Belichick got progressively more circumspect.By February 2008 the last time the Patriots played in a Super Bowl Belichick had become more guarded.They were the hunted. They had been every other franchises quarry for several years, but the scrutiny and the judgmental nature of the media -- which was bent on chip, chip, chipping away at the foundation of everything Belichick, his players and his staff had built -- wore him down.The AFC Championship loss to the Colts after the 2006 season sent Belichick into a funk and the team set about making sure it never happened again. With two masterstrokes, the Patriots acquired Randy Moss and Wes Welker. They also added Donte Stallworth and Adalius Thomas.They went unbeaten in the regular season in 2007, but it was a joyless march to perfection with the specter of a videotaping scandal taking on a life of its own. The desire of a football-obsessed nation to see the beloved franchise of 2001 get its comeuppance for its real and perceived arrogance was rampant.The Patriots became a franchise detested. And Belichick became a villain. The tightness of the Patriots under Belichicks grip seemed to cause the team to fear failure more than it embraced success.But something interesting has happened since. The 2008 Patriots overachieved with Matt Cassel at quarterback, winning 11 games. The 2009 Patriots a chemistry disaster failed. The 2010 Patriots overachieved again, winning 14 regular-season games before a loss which sent Belichick into an even deeper funk.Now comes 2011. And a Patriots team thats been pockmarked by defensive flaws still found a way to go 13-3 and emerge as AFC Champions.Even though the Patriots had a better regular-season record than their NFC counterparts the Giants, Big Blue despite its 9-7 regular-season record has emerged as the favorite (even if Vegas still says otherwise).With that backdrop, Bill Belichick has especially in the past few weeks seemed to find some measure of balance. Hes lightening up.On Sunday in Indianapolis, Belichick made a punchine of the game back in 2009 when a flawed Patriots team peed away a win in Indianapolis.A reminder: Belichick, feeling his offense could close out a win against the Colts and not trusting his defense to stop Peyton Manning, opted to run a play on fourth-and-2 from his own 28. A pass to Kevin Faulk failed. The Colts answered with a touchdown. New England lost, 35-34.Weeks of second-guessing ensued, colored by a belief that Belichick was arrogant to take the gamble.Sunday, Belichick laughed about a game that previously tore him apart, saying, I never had too much hospitality (in Indianapolis) until I went for it on fourth-and-2 and since then, Ive been greeted in a lot more friendly manner than I have in the past.A minor thing in the grand scheme but, for Belichick, a willingness to show that life does indeed go on was a benchmark moment.Welker was asked about Belichicks mood this season. Is he more kicked back?We wonder about that all of the time, said Welker. I dont know if its a lady in his life or what the deal is, but he definitely smiles a little more than he used to.Belichick will never be confused for Dave Chappelle. But the fact he can joke about a bleak point in his Patriots history is an example that life does indeed go on.This season isnt reminiscent of 2007, when an unstoppable team was stopped by the Giants. This time, the Patriots are the upstarts, never mind what Vegas or regular-season records say.And Bill Belichick is willing to let his team embrace that. To lighten up. And to see once again if the strength of the wolf in the pack.

Blount powers his way to new career-high in return to Pittsburgh


Blount powers his way to new career-high in return to Pittsburgh

LeGarrette Blount's performance at Heinz Field was an ironic one because the 24 carries he received in New England's 27-16 win over Pittsburgh was more than twice the number of carries he got during his busiest days as a member of the Steelers in 2014.

Blount signed with Pittsburgh as a free agent in 2014, believing he would be a significant part of the organization's plans. He found out relatively quickly that he was not -- not as long as Le'Veon Bell was in town and running well, at least. He averaged just six carries in his 11 games with the Steelers, and he was cut after he walked off the sidelines, frustrated by his lack of playing time, before a Monday night win over the Titans was over.

The Patriots quickly moved to sign Blount, and the match between player and organization has been a fit ever since. There are days where the football is in quarterback Tom Brady's hands for long stretches, and there are days where Blount is leaned on.

"As a running back, you always want the football," he said. "If we have 80 plays, you're going to want 80 carries. You just gotta be patient. When the opportunity presents itself, you just gotta make the most of it."

Sunday presented Blount with his share of opportunities and he capitalized. He ran for 127 yards (a 5.3 yards-per-carry average) and two scores against the Steelers, helping keep an aggressive defense at bay, and punishing his former coach Mike Tomlin for flooding the field with defensive backs when Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett were on the field.

"LG ran hard," Bill Belichick said. "Good ball-security. Good pad level. Made some tough yards, and he made a couple big-play, kind of explosive runs . . . He gave us some explosive plays, and we needed that, particularly when they cut it to a four-point game."

The Steelers made it a four-point game with a field goal before halftime, and then they made it a one-point game when they got another Chris Boswell kick to make the score, 14-13. That's when New England's 250-pound back came up large.

He ripped off gains of 11 yards, then 25 yards. Three plays later, Gronkowski was in the end zone on a 36-yard strike from Tom Brady.

"I thought we ran the ball great on that drive," Brady said. "We really got a hat on a hat and it gave LeGarrette some space to run. He's just so deceptive with his quickness. He's a big back but he's got great agility. He makes yards after contact. He gets guys in space and does a great job attacking the creases there. He had a great day today."

Belichick said those long carries helped "settle" things down as it kept the Steelers pass-rush on its heels when the Patriots were pressing to extend their lead.

"He gave us a couple of big runs there to . . . settle things down where it wasn't just a pass-rush game for them all day," Belichick said. "They had some good pressure early in the third quarter, kind of got us in some long-yardage situations. Holding penalties. Hit the quarterback. Forced the ball out quick. So his runs were able to settle us down. I thought our offensive line came through with some good blocking, as well as our receivers and the tight ends, obviously. We ran behind Marty and Rob a lot."

Through seven games, Blount already has a career-high for rushing touchdowns with eight. He's on pace to find the end zone 18 times, which would best Curtis Martin's franchise record of 14 scores in a single season. 

"We went in there with a game plan," Blount said. "We stuck to it, and we came out with a win."