Perhaps nobody is appreciating the Patriots’ playoff run more than linebacker Jamie Collins, who went 624 days between meaningful football victories.
Collins is nearing the end of his rookie season, and is expected to be in the starting lineup when the Patriots face the Broncos on Sunday afternoon in Denver in the AFC Championship game. A win would send the underdog Patriots to the Super Bowl for the eighth time in franchise history.
Playing in professional football’s ultimate game might have been a pipe dream for Collins, who suffered through an 0-12 season in 2012 while he was a senior at Southern Mississippi.
Collins played just two defensive snaps in the Patriots’ season-opening win at Buffalo on Sept. 8, but the long drought was finally over. Prior to that, Collins had last walked off the field a winner on Dec. 24, 2011, when Southern Miss beat Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl.
A number of factors — injuries, experience, athleticism — have put Collins on the field for a lot more than just two snaps; he played all 65 against Indianapolis last weekend in the Patriots’ division-round victory, when the 24-year-old from McCall Creek, Miss., had the best game of his burgeoning NFL career.
With the Patriots giving Collins 12 regular-season wins — and now standing a step away from Super Bowl XLVIII — that 0-12 season suddenly feels like 10 years ago.
“It was a really long year. Going 0-12, you don’t get anything positive out of that. But I had a brighter future ahead, so I just wanted to keep my head on straight,” Collins said on Friday, before the Patriots’ final practice of the week and hours before they flew to Denver. “I had never been through anything like that. I’m not saying it’s a good thing to go through, but if you do, then you’ll see what’s really inside.
“It [motivates me] when people talk about it. But that’s in the past. I’m having better days right now.”
Collins is having his best days right now. He’s started the past eight games, and had his breakout game against the Colts: his first career sack, first career interception, and strong pass coverage against tight end Coby Fleener, breaking up a sideline pass with a well-timed leap.
Neither the sack nor interception was even Collins’s most impressive play, although his flying takedown of quarterback Andrew Luck was a close second. Collins brought down running back Trent Richardson, rolling right back up after being partially blocked by Colts guard Hugh Thornton. The play lost 1 yard, when it looked as if Richardson might be able to get to the corner and turn the carry into a big gain.
It’s the kind of play Patriots fans might not have noticed from Collins before. But it’s one his teammates have been seeing since training camp.
“I definitely wasn’t surprised at all. Jamie is an unbelievable talent,” said defensive end Rob Ninkovich. “He is very talented as far as athletic ability.”
According to Collins, he’s always had that athleticism. He used it as a two-way threat in high school, when he also played quarterback. But it was even more evident in basketball, the sport Collins said was his favorite growing up.
Collins doesn’t remember how old he was when he first dunked a basketball — “I was young; don’t remember exactly what age because it was so long ago” — but said he can still throw it down. For the record, Collins is 6 feet 3 inches and weighs 250 pounds.
He’s a few inches shorter and roughly 20 pounds lighter than former Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest, but there are some comparisons.
“He’s long. He has size. He can play in the run game. He can cover a running back or a tight end out of the backfield or off the line of scrimmage or split out, and he can put his hand in the dirt and get after the quarterback, as well. So he has the tools,” said McGinest, who will be the Patriots’ honorary captain against the Broncos. “Once you have the tools and you have the assets, the majority of the game is mental. I think he has the opportunity to go out and just keep growing and become one of the Patriots’ great linebackers.”
Collins showed enough, despite Southern Miss’s winless season in 2012, to entice the Patriots into using a second-round draft pick on him. It might not have happened immediately, but it wasn’t long before a thought popped into Collins’s head: His days of losing game after game were likely over.
“I hadn’t watched the Patriots growing up, but when I got here I felt the intensity from guys like Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes and Dont’a [Hightower], so I felt like I would fit in with those guys,” Collins said. “I’m just going out there and using what God gave me, playing football and having fun.”
Injuries to Mayo and Spikes created more playing time for Collins, who played on all three defensive tiers in either high school or college: as a defensive end, linebacker, or safety. He liked quarterbacking, too, but realized that linebacker would be a much better fit in the future because, “I like the physicality of it, delivering hits. I’m not a finesse guy anymore.”
A rookie season that had been quietly successful blew up a week ago, with Collins making multiple impact plays like a seasoned veteran. Anyone unaware of No. 91 during the regular season couldn’t miss him during the Patriots’ playoff opener.
“The sky is the limit for him. He’s going to be a great football player for us and I am happy that he was out there making plays for us. That is what we need right now in the playoffs,” Ninkovich said. “I expect him to be out there flying around making plays. That’s just the way it is in the playoffs, everyone has to step up. Go out there and make plays. That is how you win.”
Collins knows all about losing. This feels much better.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.