Not counting the preseason, LeGarrette Blount has played in 56 NFL games, rushing for 2,711 yards and scoring 20 touchdowns. There’s very little the big, bruising back from the University of Oregon hasn’t experienced during his four-year career.
This week will be different. Blount is one of 20 players on the Patriots’ 53-man active roster who never have been in uniform for an NFL playoff game. Fourteen of the 20 are rookies. But to Blount and the other first-timers, taking a dip in the postseason pool is akin to opening a box of Christmas chocolates: You have a pretty clear idea what it will be like and how good it will taste, but until that first bite, there is an element of the unknown. And that’s part of what makes it so exciting.
“It’s going to be like a regular game, just a little bit more urgency,” Blount said last week, after a Patriots practice. “I’m definitely looking forward to it. I’m staying focused, and if I can do what I’ve been doing these last couple weeks, then I’ll be good, because it’s been fun.”
Blount looks to be rounding into playoff form for the Patriots, who went 12-4 and won the AFC East. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry over the final five regular-season games, capped by his career-high 189 rushing yards in the finale. He scored a pair of rushing touchdowns in each of the last two games.
Now Blount and his teammates know whom they’ll be facing on Saturday night. With the Chargers beating the Bengals Sunday, it’ll be the Colts — 45-44 winners Saturday over Kansas City — visiting Gillette Stadium in the divisional round of the playoffs. The winner advances to the AFC Championship, a game the Patriots have played in each of the past two seasons.
Gone will be the foe-less, self-scouting, inward look that came from last week’s bye. Now the Patriots will have scouting reports, matchup preferences, and game plans to produce and pore over. The majority of Patriots have been through this before. Those who haven’t are in for a special treat.
“The level of competition and the urgency will probably rise a lot, because nobody wants to lose in the playoffs, everyone wants to get to the ultimate goal,” said rookie safety Duron Harmon. “Coach [Bill] Belichick talked to the whole team and just told us that the sense of urgency is going to pick up. For the rookies, we’ve never been through something like this, so just follow the older guys and keep studying, keep learning, keep preparing.”
In Harmon’s case, that means talking to fellow safety Steve Gregory, who will be playing in his 10th NFL playoff game. His debut actually came against the Patriots, when Gregory was playing with San Diego, in a wild-card game at the end of the 2006 season. The Patriots ended the Chargers’ season that day, 24-21, and Gregory still remembers what it was like to make his first playoff appearance, and the week’s pressurized run-up.
“It was a lot different [than a regular-season game],” Gregory said. “The speed picks up, the intensity picks up.”
So what has Gregory told Harmon, and any other Patriots playoff newbie who’s bothered asking for advice?
“You’ve got to be completely focused in, you’ve got to put everything that’s going on in your life aside and just focus on the task at hand, which is winning a game next weekend. There will be time for all that other stuff later, as long as we take care of business,” Gregory said. “It’s win-or-go-home now; there’s no ‘I’ll correct it next week.’ Every little play and every little detail of every situation is so meaningful, because you don’t know which one of those situations could be the difference in the game.”
Rookie cornerback Logan Ryan, who led the Patriots this season with five interceptions, isn’t expecting much to be different. After 16 games, he also doesn’t feel like a rookie anymore.
“Football is football,” Ryan said. “Everything is more important in the postseason, so you want to make sure that you have your best game, but at the end of the day it’s still football.”
For the rookies, they likely ended college seasons a year ago with a bowl game. But that scenario brought a certain finality, win or lose. Those who never have been to the NFL playoffs might have to go back to their high school days to draw a comparison to what the Patriots currently face.
Even that might be a stretch.
“I would probably say there’s nothing like it,” said Harmon, who had two interceptions his first season. “Here you’ve got to keep winning to get to the next game.”
That’s the goal now. Shared by a veteran such as quarterback Tom Brady, who will be appearing in his 25th playoff game on Saturday night. Also shared by Blount, Ryan, Harmon, Danny Amendola, and the other 16 Patriots who will experience the postseason for the first time. No matter the number of playoff snaps in one’s past, one thing is clear.
“It’s a bigger stage now; there’s only so many teams left playing,” Gregory said. “You understand the implications of what a loss means. Losing the second game of the season, not that it’s not important, but now if you lose a game, you’re in here having exit meetings, packing up your bags, and getting ready for next year. That’s the difference.”