FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Two running backs for New England dressed 20 feet apart on Sunday. How their respective last eight days unfolded was the most Patriots thing ever.
One back carried the ball 37 times last weekend, gained 201 yards, scored four touchdowns and graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. The other back left the field before his game ended, was cut by Pittsburgh and signed by New England, his old team.
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Which back starred on Sunday should be obvious, but this is the Patriots and what they do -- besides win -- is never obvious. Naturally, LeGarrette Blount took the star turn and carried 12 times for 78 yards and two touchdowns. Jonas Gray, meanwhile, followed the game of his life by arriving late to the facility this week and was subsequently benched on Sunday in the Patriots' 34-9 win over the Lions. Of course.
This is the Patriots, winners of seven straight games that unfolded in seven different ways, predictable only in how unpredictably they operate. There are three constants with the Patriots and their now 43-3 record at home since the start of the 2009 season: head coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and the record. Everything else is constantly changing.
New England dominated the Lions in a different way than it dominated the Colts last week, and the Broncos before that and the Bears before the Broncos. The Patriots have won their last four games by a combined 97 points. Three of those victories came against teams (Denver, Indianapolis and Detroit) that led their respective divisions. The Colts led the NFL in total offense and the Patriots held them to 20 points. The Lions led the NFL in total defense and the Patriots put 34 points on the scoreboard.
So many NFL head coaches say they’re gameplan specific, then force the ball toward their best players, regardless of the scheme they face (Lions, cough, cough, Calvin Johnson, cough, cough). The Patriots have been gameplan specific since before it became popular to say so. Take the last three games. Against Denver, the Patriots threw 53 passes and ran 25 times; against Indy, it was 44 runs and 30 passes; against Detroit, 53 passes and 20 runs. So it went.
“You never really know what your role is going to be, regardless of what happens,” said Gray, a man who found that out the hard way. The crowd that gathered around his locker wondered if he played zero snaps on Sunday as a disciplinary measure. He said he could neither confirm nor deny that, and someone from the PR department had to chime in from behind. “Thanks Jonas! That’s it, guys.”
Different week, different players, different stars. Where cornerback Darrelle Revis assumed the featured defensive role against Indy, on Sunday, he shared top billing with Brandon Browner, the former Seahawk who held Johnson to four receptions on 10 targets for 58 meaningless yards.
Browner stood at his locker afterward, beard trimmed, hat on. He said that when Belichick relayed his assignment earlier in the week his eyes lit up because as a 6-foot-4 corner, taller receivers such as Johnson can be easier to cover than “some of these little dudes.” Yeah, right. But additional motivation came from the Lions defense, which spent part of the week complimenting … the Lions defense. The Patriots, Browner and Revis said, went so far as to hang some of those quotes in their meeting room.
“A lot of us viewed it as trash talk,” Revis said. “We looked at that as, hey, man, like a slap in the face.”
Said Browner: “Gotta play the game."
Tim Wright played the game. He caught five passes, two of them for touchdowns. He’s caught 23 passes this season and has six TDs. He’s essentially scoring once every four receptions.
It’s contributions like Wright’s that turned an offense that looked lost in a 27-point defeat to Kansas City in late September into one that has scored at least 34 points in every game since Oct. 16. Where Brady was described as having no one to throw to, now he has myriad choices, mostly because he made them so. Julian Edelman accumulates receptions from the slot. Brandon LaFell has emerged as a deep threat. Rob Gronkowski is capable of mass destruction and his mere presence opens up the field. Then there’s the running backs, Gray and Blount and Shane Vereen, who catches passes out of the backfield. Brady can use them all, and he does, depending on the week.
The Patriots play football in a way Eli Whitney would appreciate. They’re all about interchangeable parts. “Whenever someone is called on to make a play, that’s what we do,” Wright said.
Take Blount. He was asked over and over what his expectations were when he arrived back in New England. Over and over, he said that he had none. “I didn’t assume anything,” he said. And why would he? That’s not how the Patriots operate.
After Sunday, this Patriots season once defined by, “We’re on to Cincinnati” -- Belichick’s response to what seemed like every question after the Kansas City loss -- looks more and more like a championship-caliber campaign. The Patriots continue to look like the best team in the AFC. They often look like the best team in the NFL. They are the Super Bowl favorites. They should be.
Its latest victory guarantees New England a 14th-straight season with a winning regular-season record. The last team to do that was San Francisco, which posted a winning mark in 16 consecutive seasons, from 1983 to ’98. That’s tied with Dallas (1970-’85) for the most in NFL history.
That did not matter to the Patriots on Sunday. They’re on to Green Bay and Rodgers, another elite quarterback, after Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck and Matthew Stafford, two stars and guy who once appeared destined for stardom, three games in a row. The Patriots threw the ball so well against the Lions that they will surely head to Green Bay next week and run right at the Packers. Maybe Blount will get the carries. Maybe Gray will. Maybe Revis will reprise his days as a high school running back.
This is the Patriots, after all. The least obvious choice is the most obvious one.