FOXBOROUGH — Like almost everybody along the Patriots’ sideline, running back Shane Vereen temporarily became a fan and went airborne when Kyle Arrington recovered the onside kick that gave New England’s offense the chance to cap yet another improbable comeback.
Vereen’s elation was short-lived, though, interrupted by a reminder that it was time to go back to work. There were exactly 60 seconds left, and a game needed to be won.
“I was jumping for joy at the fact that we got the ball back . . . and then I realized that we had to go out on offense,” Vereen said. “So I composed myself and went out there.”
Vereen didn’t see the ball on the final drive, but by then he already had done plenty, setting two franchise records for a running back: receptions (12) and receiving yards (153) in a game.
Without Vereen’s contributions, it’s likely the Patriots never would have been in position to orchestrate one of the wildest wins in recent memory, Sunday’s 27-26 victory over the Browns at Gillette Stadium.
Vereen had only three carries — one resulting in a 6-yard touchdown — but did a lot of damage in the passing attack.
On a day in which Rob Gronkowski was carted off the field with what appeared to be a serious knee injury, nobody stepped up more than Vereen to fill the void created by the tight end’s absence. But as he frequently does, the third-year back from California deflected much of the individual praise.
“We were able to get some matchups that favored us and we were able to exploit them and make some plays,” Vereen said. “If I had to catch the ball in order for us to win the game, I’ll be able to do [that]. Really, it’s all about the team and it’s all about getting a victory.”
Vereen was targeted a team-high 17 times, as the Patriots obviously saw something in the Browns’ fourth-ranked defense that they thought they could expose.
The receiving game has been a strength of Vereen’s game since he returned from a broken wrist suffered in the season-opening win at Buffalo. After sitting out eight games, Vereen has played in the past four and amassed pass-catching numbers that dwarf his rushing totals.
Starting with the Nov. 18 game at Carolina, Vereen has caught 33 passes for 315 yards, gradually expanding his role of being used primarily as a third-down back. He’s in on most passing downs now, and was out there for every single play of the Patriots’ final two offensive drives, when the outlook for victory appeared bleak.
“We’re not done until the clock says zero. Down but never out,” Vereen said. “When you’ve got Tom [Brady] as your quarterback, you know you’ve always got a shot.”
But it was Vereen’s legs, not his hands, that got the Patriots into the end zone for the first time in the game two plays later. He scooted in from 6 yards to complete a 72-yard, all-Vereen drive: 50-yard reception, 16-yard reception, 6-yard run. The 2-point conversion made it 19-11, getting the Patriots within one score with a quarter left to play.
Vereen did the bulk of his damage in the second half, with 10 of his 12 catches and 141 of his 153 yards coming after the break.
“When he’s been in there, he’s been pretty productive for us,” coach Bill Belichick said. “The more opportunity he’s gotten, the more he’s been able to do for us.”
Vereen had never had a 100-yard rushing game in the NFL until the Week 1 win. He’d never had a 100-yard receiving game until Sunday. In the process, he knocked Dick Christy out of the Patriots record book. In the team’s eighth game of its inaugural 1960 season, against the Raiders, Christy had 124 receiving yards, which stood for 53 years as the most by a Patriots running back.
“It’s been a roller-coaster ride, a lot of peaks and valleys, but that’s football,” Vereen said.
He was talking about his injury-abbreviated season. He could have been talking about Sunday’s win.
“I’m just happy to be here now,” said Vereen. “I’m happy that I can be part of the team.”