FOXBOROUGH — It can be dark and loud and chaotic at the bottom of a massive fumble scrum, with no honor code or gentleman’s agreement at work. Fingers get pulled, legs get bent, eyes sometimes get gouged — not to mention other unspeakable tactics — as players do almost whatever’s necessary to come up with the loose football.
There can be some luck involved, but toughness generally rules the day. Especially in the playoffs, when bodies are sore, the weather turns cold, and the stakes are at their highest. Recovering a playoff fumble can mean the difference between moving on and going home.
As the Patriots get ready to play in Sunday’s AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium against the Indianapolis Colts, they’ll bring a toughness that’s served them well in the past. They’re used to playing this time of year, and they’re used to winning this time of year.
A victory over the Colts would send the Patriots to Arizona for Super Bowl XLIX, which would be the franchise’s eighth appearance in the NFL’s ultimate game.
Their season might already be over if not for a pair of fumble recoveries in Saturday’s playoff win over Baltimore. Two Patriots lost the ball, both in Patriot territory; on each occasion, a Patriot came up with it.
“I don’t know how,” said Julian Edelman. “I truly don’t. I got lucky, I guess. That play’s in the past, and hopefully in the future I don’t fumble.”
Edelman corrected his own mistake Saturday, somehow coming up with the ball when he fumbled in the second quarter after a short reception.
Surrounded by five diving Ravens after he was stripped of the ball, Edelman fought them all off at the bottom of the pile, helping the Patriots maintain possession in what would become a touchdown drive.
In a 35-31 win filled with momentum swings, trick plays, and big plays, a second-quarter fumble recovery might easily get overlooked. It was still a huge play, another example of the toughness the undersized slot receiver always plays with.
Do the playoffs demand a different kind of toughness, one laced with desperation, since nothing but the current game is guaranteed?
“I guess so,” said Edelman. “The stakes are higher. Win or you go home.
“Usually teams that are the most mentally tough and physically tough to play in cold weather, or the ones that can deal with the situations that ebb and flow in a football game, are usually the team that wins.”
At least Edelman is accustomed to having his hands on the football. Not so defensive lineman Chris Jones, although Jones did block a field goal on the final play in a win over the Jets this season.
This time, before the Patriots even ran a play on offense, Jones had the ball again. Danny Amendola fumbled during his kickoff return following the Ravens’ opening-drive touchdown, the ball squirting free just past the 20-yard line. Jones, part of the return wedge in front of Amendola, saw the ball on the turf, and lunged for it, along with seemingly a dozen other players.
As the referees tried to figure out who had the ball and players from both teams were signaling they had it, Jones and offensive lineman Marcus Cannon were at the bottom, working together.
“Marcus did a great job of helping me out there when we were underneath the pile,” said Jones. “He pushed the ball to me, helped me out. It was a collective effort.
“I didn’t know who was who, which hands were which. Wherever you can find leverage, use it. Somehow it ended up in my hands. I guess just wanting it more.”
Bill Belichick expects his teams to play with toughness — what coach doesn’t? — but he wasn’t willing to illustrate the fumble recoveries as Exhibits 1 and 1A. To him, the more important part of the fumble recoveries was the act of losing the ball in the first place. A third fumble, this one by Shane Vereen on the game-winning drive, was recovered by the Ravens, but overturned after a replay review determined Vereen was down by contact a split-second before the ball popped free.
“I’d say the bottom line on all that is we have to do a much better job of taking care of the ball,” said Belichick. “We had really four potential turnovers — one interception and three fumbles that we could have lost.
“We just have to do a better job of taking care of all those balls. Yeah, it speaks to the toughness of getting in there and fighting for the ball and all that, but we have to have better ball security than that, period.”
No surprise, then, but there was Belichick at Wednesday’s practice inside Gillette Stadium, trying to dislodge the ball from the skill players as they ran a drill. It’s not the first time he’s done that, but the timing of his hands-on involvement and his words from earlier in the week serve as blunt reminders about how highly the Patriots coach values the simplest of football fundamentals: If you’ve been given the ball, hold onto it.
But if a fumbled ball is up for grabs, by any and all means, grab it.