Damon Hack
Monday January 21st, 2008

One hour after the confetti fell and a trophy was raised, Patriots running back Kevin Faulk gathered the last of his belongings and prepared to leave the New England locker room. He walked past the stalls of Rodney Harrison and Junior Seau, two likely future Hall of Famers. He continued past the lockers of Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi, two Patriots greats. When he ducked behind a curtain to visit with his family, he was out of the view of his teammates, if not completely gone from their thoughts.

"He's one of those guys who's irreplaceable," Patriots guard Logan Mankins said.

"Him and No. 12," said fullback Heath Evans, referring also to Tom Brady. "They're in the same boat in my mind."

In protecting their perfect season and advancing to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in seven seasons, the Patriots have come to lean on the gifts of a 31-year-old part-timer.

Faulk, a third-down specialist, has never had the Patriots' backfield to himself and he probably never will. When he was drafted out of LSU in the second round of the 1999 draft, he had to share time with Terry Allen. Over the next seven seasons Faulk platooned with Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon. This season, he has split time with second-year veteran Laurence Maroney, who formed an explosive tandem with Faulk on Sunday in New England's 21-12 victory over the Chargers in the AFC title game.

But in the Patriots' most critical moments in their unbeaten season, Faulk has been the player most likely to deliver a nifty run, a crushing block or a fingertip catch. It has become so customary that tackle Matt Light doesn't even have to look up from the line of scrimmage to know where Brady has thrown a critical pass.

"Whenever there's a big play to be made, there always seems to be a 33 at the end of it," Light said.

As defenses have schemed to contain wideout Randy Moss -- in the playoffs, Jacksonville and San Diego each limited him to one catch -- Faulk has emerged as one of Brady's most reliable outlets. In the regular-season finale against the Giants, Faulk had a season-high eight catches for 64 yards, keeping a late drive alive with a 13-yard catch on third-and-11. He added five catches for 36 yards in the AFC divisional playoff against the Jaguars.

With the Chargers' defense rolling a safety to help cover Moss, Faulk led the Patriots with eight catches for 82 yards. His most important grab came on third-and-11 from the Patriots' 24 with 7:16 remaining and the offense trying to burn clock. The 5-foot-8 Faulk left his feet to corral a pass from Brady and rolled three feet for the first down. Three plays later, Brady found Faulk for 14 yards on third-and-five and the Patriots were minutes away from their celebration.

"I remember seeing him do that kind of thing through the years when I was watching this team," said Patriots tight end Kyle Brady, who spent the previous eight seasons in Jacksonville. "There are obviously the ones that everyone [sees], but he also does it in blitz pickup and so many little things that people don't even necessarily appreciate."

In some ways, Faulk has prepared his entire life for a position of leadership. He often says that if he wasn't playing football, he'd be coaching it. Once asked to recall the most lasting memory of his life, he said it was learning of the death of an older brother, who was murdered when Faulk was in grade school.

Growing up in Carencro, La., Faulk became a standout football player, twice named the class 5A offensive most valuable player. He finished his collegiate career with the Tigers ranked fifth in NCAA history with 6,833 all-purpose yards.

As a professional. Faulk, whose early years with the Patriots were marked by fumbling problems, has steadily built up a reservoir of trust. He has become so versed with the levers of the Patriots' system that coach Bill Belichick has deployed him in various roles. Though not an every-down back, Faulk was voted an offensive captain before the season.

"Special teams, pass protection, running the ball, catching it, third downs, other downs," Belichick says. "He's been a downfield receiver, third-down receiver, screens, draws. Even though he's not one of the highest play-time players, I think when he's in there he's very productive and he's one of the most respected players."

Faulk says he doesn't begrudge his hard-hat living, grinding out yards on third down, laying blocks on blitzing linebackers.

"Real simple," Faulk says of his philosophy. "Be prepared no matter what the situation is."

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