FOXBOROUGH — Of all the versatile playmakers the Patriots have on offense, LeGarrette Blount might have been well down the list of candidates expected to shatter the team’s single-game all-purpose yardage record.
Acquired in an offseason trade with Tampa Bay, where he had lost his featured back role, Blount wasn’t the leading rusher for the Patriots this season and had been part of an underwhelming rotation at returning kickoffs.
On Sunday, in a driving rain at Gillette Stadium that seemed tailor-made for a big, bruising back to make a slow, steady impact, Blount did even better. He turned a 34-20 win over Buffalo into his best day in four NFL seasons. Blount carried 24 times for a career high 189 yards and two touchdowns, rushing numbers the Patriots hadn’t seen all season.
As impressive as Blount was running the ball — he’s been getting more carries the last few weeks — he made his biggest contribution returning kicks. He had two second-half returns totalling 145 yards, which led to 10 momentum-swinging points.
Add it up, and Blount’s 334 all-purpose yards set a team record, surpassing Larry Garron’s 273 (100 scrimmage, 173 return) on Nov. 3, 1962.
Blount’s big game earned him postgame praise from his teammates and one of the rarest sights you’ll see during a Patriots game: a massive bear hug from coach Bill Belichick in the final minutes, after the win — and a first-round playoff bye — had been secured.
“It was cold and it was rainy, and it was hard for a lot of guys to keep their footing,” Blount said. “We just went into the game with the mind-set to run the football and play physical football, and that’s what we did.”
Blount had the Patriots’ first and last touchdowns, bookend 30-plus yarders that showed off his ability to make reads, take contact, and plow ahead. His first score helped give the Patriots a 13-3 lead; his last, with 2:31 left, capped the scoring and left a lasting image: Blount diving for the goal line, ball extended, like he was riding a Slip ‘n Slide.
“Clearly the best player on the field. He had a tremendous day,” Belichick said. “I think definitely an assist on this one has to go to our assistant pro personnel director, [cornerback Aqib] Talib, who I talked to before we traded for LeGarrette. Everything he said about him was absolutely right.”
Talib and Blount were teammates at Tampa Bay. Now they’ve been reunited in New England, and Blount will be tasting the NFL playoffs for the first time in his career.
“That’s wonderful,” Talib said. “To have a day like that, to have a game like that, to be back on the same team with me, to live next door to me . . . I can’t do nothing but smile,” Talib said. “That’s my dog.”
Blount had a team-high 15 kickoff returns coming into the game, but hadn’t been sent out there since the Nov. 3 game against Pittsburgh, with Josh Boyce and Devin McCourty getting their turns since then. Both of those players missed Sunday’s game with injury, though, so after Shane Vereen was initially given an opportunity — two returns, 44 yards — Blount was sent out to receive the kick after the Bills had cut the Patriots’ lead to 16-10 late in the third quarter.
Special teams captain Matthew Slater, who determines whether to give the return man the green light to take the kick out of the end zone, almost held his hand up.
“I was about a half-second away from keeping him in. There was a moment where I was like, ‘Oooh, bad weather . . . ’ and I looked at him, it was almost like we made eye contact, and it was like, well, we’re going to do this. Out the gate he went,” Slater said.
Blount, who is deceptively quick for a 250-pound back, raced 83 yards with the return, setting up the Patriots at the Buffalo 20. Four plays later, New England was in the end zone.
After another Buffalo touchdown again cut the Patriots’ lead to a touchdown, Blount was at it again, taking the ensuing kickoff 62 yards. That led to a field goal, and later his 35-yard touchdown run iced it.
“We’ve been waiting 16 weeks for a big return, we finally got them, and we needed them,” Slater said. “With the conditions like they were tonight, not exactly the easiest for the offense, we needed to answer back, and we were able to do that.
“The guys up front did a heck of a job blocking, [special teams coach] Scotty [O’Brien] was confident in our scheme, and then the big fella rumbled a little bit.”