Curran: Pats defense pulls its weight

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Curran: Pats defense pulls its weight

FOXBORO The spin put forth and I was spinning too was that the Patriots would go as far as Tom Brady would take them.

Their defense? A liability. Something to be overcome.

But on Saturday night, with the football world and Tebownians everywhere watching, the Patriots executed their defensive plan to perfection. Bottling up the Denver running game, holding the Broncos to five plays or fewer on eight of their 13 drives, the Patriots oft-lamented group made it so Brady only had to score 11 with his offense to win.

They scored 45 just for good measure. And the New England defense could exhale and answer questions for once about what went right.

Those guys up front did a great job, said linebacker Jerod Mayo when asked the key to the performance against Tebow. I cant even lie to you. Those guys up front did an excellent job. Vince (Wilfork), Gerard Warren, (Brandon) Deaderick, Kyle Love. They let us run through and let us make plays, man, helluva game.

Admittedly, the Broncos were bringing in an offense from the football stone ages. But it was good enough for them to have won 7 of 8 at one point before the Patriots beat them 41-23. And it exploited an undermanned Steelers defense last week in the Wild Card round.

And the New England defense hadnt shown enough for anyone to feel secure theyd shut anyone down, no matter how much of an anachronism they were.

But in the cold and the wind of a January night in Massachusetts, Denver got nothing done. Their lone touchdown drive was a 24-yard excursion off a Brady interception in the second quarter.

I asked Wilfork how it felt for the defense to pull its oar as hard as the offense and Brady have all year.

If he plays well then everyone else plays well, said Wilfork. When he has an off-day, we try to rally around him as a team to help Tom and the offense. We arent going to get 20-30 points all the time. It doesnt happen like that. Our job as the defense is to stop the opponent. Whatever we score, make them score less. Thats the mind-frame we have. We dont want to depend on offense to score 30 points just thinking that each week is going to be like that. We arent going to set ourselves up for failure.

But it had shaped up that way. To believe theyd play this well was to take on faith the idea that, at some point, theyd coalesce as a unit.

Faith is something Wilfork and other defenders have had all year in the face of porous performances and disheartening statistics.

All year we had confidence, said Wilfork. I remember talking a long time ago, at the beginning of the season, about the confidence I had in this team and this defense from what I can see we can do. The main thing is guys believe. There is not a week that we come in here and guys dont believe what we are capable of doing as a defense. It can take us a long way. I think that with a performance like tonight, in the postseason, everything is elevated. We dont want to be good; we want to be great, especially at this time.

You want to be able to make the game changing plays and great situational plays, Wilfork continued. All that comes in, but this team wont go away.

The biggest game-changing defensive play ended Denvers first possession. After moving from their own 24 to the Patriots 37, Rob Ninkovich got around the edge and strip-sacked Tebow. Brandon Spikes who had a terrific performance recovered. And the Patriots scored to go up 14-0.

In other games, picks and turnovers came like found money. Right place at the right time stuff, it seemed like. This was a playmakers play.

There were other flashy plays too five sacks of Tebow. But the guts of this game was simply keeping Tebow and the Denver running game contained.

We stressed all week on keeping him contained, keeping the run contained, not letting the ball outside, said Ninkovich. When youre out there playing and you want to go one way because you see him, but you know that hes got the ability to get outside and really hurt your team. So youve just got to be disciplined in your responsibilities in the defense. Just playing good team defense all together and great communication, it starts with that.

No defensive player was biting on the vindication storyline.

In one ear and out the other, Ninkovich said when asked if it was nice to get a chance to shut people up. As a defensive player, I couldnt listen to that. Anything outside of here. People can say what they want but at the end of the day its about wins and losses and we were able to get 13. During the year we had our ups and our downs and we were still able to put an eight-game winning streak together.

And advance to the AFC Championship.

Thursday's Patriots-Bills practice report: Garoppolo, Brissett practice again

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Thursday's Patriots-Bills practice report: Garoppolo, Brissett practice again

FOXBORO -- The Patriots held a walkthrough on the field behind Gillette Stadium one day after both Jimmy Garoppolo (shoulder) and Jacoby Brissett (thumb) tested their arms during the team's practice in full pads n Wednesday.

Both quarterbacks were back on the field, but for the second consecutive day they were limited, according to the injury report. That injury report was, in fact, unchanged from Wednesday's, meaning tight end Rob Gronkowski (hamstring) and linebacker Dont'a Hightower (knee) were also limited. 

There was one significant alteration to the Bills practice report, however, as tight end Charles Clay (knee) was back on the field Thursday. Receiver Sammy Watkins (foot) remained out. 

Patriots coach Bill Belichick described Watkins' explosive abilities in Buffalo's passing game earlier this week. 

"Watkins is big, he is good after the catch, he’s obviously good on the deep balls," Belichick said. "But he is good on catch-and-run plays. He can take those intermediate routes or crossing routes and turn a 10, 15-yard catch into 40. So, a hard guy to tackle, big, fast, very athletic."

If he can't go, the Bills will have to find other ways to try to manufacture yardage. 

Here's Thursday's practice participation report for the Patriots and Bills.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
QB Jacoby Brissett (right thumb)
OT Marcus Cannon (calf)
G Jonathan Cooper (foot)
LB Jonathan Freeny (shoulder)
QB Jimmy Garoppolo (shoulder)
TE Rob Gronkowski (hamstring)
LB Dont'a Hightower (knee)
CB Eric Rowe (ankle)

BUFFALO BILLS

DID NOT PARTICIPATE
OL Cyrus Kouandjio (ankle)
OL Patrick Lewis (knee)
DB Jonathan Meeks (foot)
WR Greg Salas (groin)
WR Sammy Watkins (foot)

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
DB Colt Anderson (foot)
TE Charles Clay (knee)
DB Ronald Darby (hamstring)
OL Cordy Glenn (ankle)
QB Cardale Jones (right shoulder)
DB Aaron Williams (ankle)

Blount: Belichick has had my back from the beginning

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Blount: Belichick has had my back from the beginning

FOXBORO -- During the week, there are times when Bill Belichick and LeGarrette Blount will walk out to practice together, chatting, laughing, looking like old pals. On Sundays, Belichick will coach Blount like any other player, calling Blount by the same nickname Blount's teammates use for the 250-pound bruiser: "LG." After Thursday's win over the Texans, Blount ran for over 100 yards and two scores and earned special recognition from the head coach.

From the outside looking in, they are the Patriots version of the Odd Couple. One is a Hall of Fame, old-school, buttoned-up disciplinarian. The other is a care-free 29-year-old who spends chunks of his free time on Snapchat and Instagram, often taking pictures of his sneaker collection.  

But with Belichick, Blount's career has taken off. Undrafted in 2010 due in part to off-the-field issues, Blount bounced from the Titans to the Buccaneers, and in Tampa Bay, he found early success. He ran for over 1,000 yards as a rookie and followed that up by starting all 14 games in which he played during his second season. Having fallen out of favor with the coaching staff in 2012, he was traded to New England for return specialist Jeff Demps the following offseason. 

With the Patriots, Blount ran for 772 yards and a career-high seven scores, setting him up to sign a free-agent deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers before the start of the 2014 campaign. It was a turbulent few months for Blount, who was arrested for marijuana possession, served a one-game suspension, and then walked off the field during a game against the Titans, leading to his release. 

Who was there to scoop him up? Belichick, of course.

The Patriots moved quickly to re-sign Blount to a two-year deal, and Blount was very open about how thankful he was that the Patriots offered him another chance. Though it may seem like a head-scratching match, Blount enjoys playing for Belichick and he appreciates Belichick's frankness. There are no promises made, but expectations are laid out, and the onus is on the player to earn his role. At other stops, Blount felt as though he may have been misled. 

Belichick has leaned on Blount over the course of the first three weeks of this season much in the same way Blount leaned on the Patriots organization when he was looking for another chance to play in 2013 and 2014. With Tom Brady suspended, the Patriots have run the football more than any other team in the NFL, and Blount has recorded more carries than any other back in the league, helping them get out to a 3-0 start. 

On Thursday he was named the AFC's Offensive Player of the Month for posting 298 rushing yards and four touchdowns, and he shed some light on the relationship he shares with his head coach.

"I have a really good relationship with Bill," Blount said. "I love Bill to death. He’s always had my back from the beginning, from the first time I met him. I think he’s probably going to have it forever. We just have a really great relationship. I like everything that he does, I respect him a lot. I think he’s going to go down in history as the best coach to ever coach this game."

And what about having your boss call you by a nickname? 

"Can’t complain if he calls you that," Blount said. "Because what’s LG stand for? Life’s good, right?"

Right now, for both Blount and Belichick, it can't get much better.