FOXBOROUGH — Borrowing from Ian Fleming, once is happenstance, twice is a coincidence, and three times is a pattern.
What would the James Bond author say about the Patriots blocking four kicks in a season, then? Maybe something like, “Big. Real big.”
On the day that placekicker Stephen Gostkowski became the Patriots’ career points leader, perhaps it was appropriate that special teams made a mighty impact on Sunday’s 41-13 win over the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. Chances are the team’s sixth straight AFC East title would have been earned even without the exploits of the special teams unit. But the group has had a hand — literally — in a number of key moments this season.
That’s not a coincidence, or a pattern.
“It’s awesome. This has been a great year for us, special teams-wise, every week it seems like we’re coming up with big plays,” said Matthew Slater, the team’s special teams captain. “We work so hard at it, and it’s very gratifying to see it pay off.”
It paid off almost immediately against the Dolphins, who took the opening kickoff and marched 57 yards in four plays. With Miami lining up for a 41-yard field goal try, Jamie Collins did what Chandler Jones, and then Chris Jones, and then Brandon Bolden did before him: He got his hand on an opponent’s kick, and swung the momentum the Patriots’ way.
Collins blocked Caleb Sturgis’s field goal try, and Kyle Arrington scooped the ball up. He raced 62 yards for a touchdown, giving the Patriots a 7-0 lead before the offense ran its first play. It was the second time in Arrington’s career he made such a play: On Oct. 4, 2010, also against the Dolphins, Arrington returned a blocked field goal 35 yards for a touchdown.
Slater was so excited at the play — three blocked field goals ties a season team record, and four blocked kicks is the most since 2002 — that he had to be restrained by coach Bill Belichick.
“All I remember from that play is after Jamie blocked it, Bill pushed me to get back, because I almost ran on the field,” Slater said.
The Patriots are throwing a block party this season. Chandler Jones scored a touchdown after blocking a field goal try against Minnesota, Chris Jones preserved a 27-25 win by blocking a Jets field goal on the final play of the game, and Bolden got his hands on a punt a week ago at San Diego, which led to a Patriots touchdown.
“Those plays are not expected,” Slater said. “You expect the routine when it comes to the kicking game. But when you make a big play, for a score like we did today, it really just changes the momentum, and the sideline really feeds off of it.”
The biggest special teams story heading into the game was whether Gostkowski would get the 5 points he needed to climb past Adam Vinatieri, who had held the franchise record for career points since leaving after the 2005 season. Gostkowski was drafted the next season, and with 1,154 points coming in, was on pace to grab the record in front of a special crowd, and at a special time.
Three extra points helped the Patriots build a 21-13 lead, and left Gostkowski 1 point from matching Vinatieri. When he lined up for a 35-yard field goal try in the third quarter, he wasn’t sure what was at stake.
“I wasn’t trying to count the points during the game. My focus is trying to help the team win and score as many points as possible,” Gostkowski said. “It was cool that it happened on a field goal. I was like, ‘Did it happen yet?’ and then they announced it, and it was pretty cool. It’s about as fired up as I’ve ever gotten on a kickoff before.”
He wasn’t the only one sharing in the moment.
“It was a special game for me. It’s my son’s birthday tomorrow, my whole family is in town. Just a coincidence of something like that happening at home, with a lot of people in town, it was cool, because my family doesn’t come to very many games, they just happened to come to this one,” said Gostkowski, who said he had a brother (from Florida) and his parents (from New York) in attendance. “It made it a little more special. I looked over after they announced it. My family was really excited, they were jumping up and down. It was pretty cool.”
Slayden Gostkowski turns 5 on Monday. He might not realize what his father accomplished on Sunday, or the Patriots special teams, for that matter. It’ll be Gostkowski’s job to someday let him know that he became the Patriots’ all-time scoring leader in front of his family on a day when the Patriots clinched yet another division title.
“I’ve said this before, any accomplishment that I make will be something that I look back on when I’m done playing and be excited about, and probably brag to my kids and my grandkids about, hopefully,” Gostkowski said. “It was just a special day. Winning another AFC East championship, and then to get a little bit of recognition was cool on top of it.”