FOXBOROUGH — It wasn’t exactly a Gordie Howe hat trick — wrong sport — but if Mr. Hockey happened to be watching Saturday’s AFC divisional round playoff, he certainly would have been proud of the night turned in by Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins.
Making his playoff debut, the rookie from Southern Mississippi successfully shadowed Colts tight end Coby Fleener in pass coverage, and recorded his first sack and his first interception.
There were a number of highlights for the Patriots in the 43-22 win that pushed them into the AFC Championship Game, namely LeGarrette Blount. But on the defensive side, Collins was as responsible as anybody.
His first NFL season is about as far removed as can be from his final college season, when Collins and Southern Miss went 0-12. Now he and his teammates are a win away from the Super Bowl.
“It’s very special, the words can’t even explain it,” Collins said. “Postseason game, big game, we’re down a man, so it’s next man up.”
Collins figured to get more playing time because of the decision by the Patriots earlier in the week to place linebacker Brandon Spikes on injured reserve. With Jerod Mayo also on season-ending IR, the available linebacker snaps would likely go to Collins and Dane Fletcher.
Collins got the start, but that’s nothing new; he had started eight games in the regular season, including the final six. It’s what he did with his playing time that made news.
Despite giving up 3 inches to the 6-foot-6-inch Fleener, Collins consistently drew the assignment on the Colts tight end.
He didn’t shut him out — Fleener actually led the Colts with six receptions — but he broke up a number of passes and caused a number of incompletions. Fleener was targeted a team-high 11 times, so it was a matchup the Colts felt they could exploit.
“He lined up a lot against Fleener today, one of their top players, and he did a great job on him,” said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. “He does everything. He’s one of those freakish athletes that can do what we do as defensive backs as a linebacker.”
With the Patriots leading early in the fourth quarter, 36-22, Collins stepped in front of a pass intended for Fleener and earned his first interception, setting the Patriots up inside the red zone. They turned the turnover into a touchdown, with Stevan Ridley scoring from a yard out to effectively close out the win.
Earlier in the game, on a play just as important, Collins sacked Luck to force the Colts into a third-and-long. Indianapolis had the momentum at the time, having cut the Patriots’ lead to 29-22 and forcing a three-and-out to get the ball back. Collins’s sack made it third and 16; the Patriots held on third down and forced a punt.
Asked if it was the best game he had played, Collins had a one-word answer.
He might choose his words carefully, but his teammates have noticed someone who is getting more comfortable — and more impactful — as the games become more important.
“The bigger the game, the better big-time players play,” said defensive end Rob Ninkovich.
Said McCourty: “He’s been getting better week by week, that’s what it’s about. Our young guys have worked their butts off all year, and all the work they’ve put in is showing up now. I’m happy for him, and I think he has a lot more big games in him. The more he’s played, he’s had more awareness and is making plays all over the field now. He’s not worrying about where to line up, he’s out there like a veteran now.”
Collins has come a long way from 0-12. Lost in all that losing was a prospect the Patriots wanted, and ended up using a second-round pick on in last year’s draft. He hasn’t missed a game for the Patriots, and now that the linebacking corps has suffered two big hits, Collins has been thrust into a major role.
He doesn’t seem fazed by the spotlight, which now will only get brighter.
“Maybe next week, maybe tomorrow. It still hasn’t sunk in,” Collins said. “It’s been pretty good. [I] can’t back down, it’s my job, have to go out and get it done.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.