Patriot tough: Grit carries New England to bye

LeGarrette Blount carries defenders with him. Logan Mankins

misses just one series after hurting his ankle. Tom Brady drives

his team to last-minute victories.

These New England Patriots are one tough bunch.

”You’ve got to deal with adversity,” wide receiver Danny

Amendola said. ”We’ve got a lot of tough guys in this locker room,

that’s for sure.”

There’s the 250-pound Blount, who rushed for 189 yards and

returned two kickoffs for 145 in New England’s 34-20 win over

Buffalo last Sunday.

There’s the 308-pound Mankins, a five-time Pro Bowl guard who

blocked two Bills to spring Blount for a 36-yard touchdown run

moments before being helped off the field with the injury.

And there are rookies and unheralded free agents who contributed

when the Patriots lost key defensive players Jerod Mayo, Vince

Wilfork and Tommy Kelly for the season before it was half over and

other starters for shorter periods.

The Patriots ”never quit, never felt sorry for ourselves, never

just went in a corner and said `we wanted to hide,” said one of

those replacements, tight end Matthew Mulligan.

That approach helped the Patriots (12-4) earn the second seed in

the AFC playoffs and a first-round bye.

”We’ve had other tough, competitive teams,” coach Bill

Belichick said Tuesday. ”I don’t know where one ranks or the other

ranks but I certainly think this team has shown examples of that

many times. … I think we’re going to need it going forward.”

Not knowing their next opponent, players are spending the week

practicing and allowing their bruised bodies to rest. The Patriots

will find out late Sunday afternoon which team they play in

Foxborough the night of Jan. 11.

It will be Cincinnati if the Bengals beat the San Diego Chargers

that day. Otherwise, they’ll host the winner of Saturday’s

wild-card game between Indianapolis and Kansas City.

Either way, the competition will be much stiffer than what the

Patriots faced much of the regular season when they met only four

teams who finished with winning records. And they lost 13-6 at

Cincinnati, their only potential division-round opponent they

faced.

But they’ve already overcome many challenges.

They won the season opener against Buffalo 23-21 on a field goal

with five seconds left. They overcame a 24-point halftime deficit

against Denver and won 34-31 in overtime. They came from 12 points

back and beat Cleveland 27-26 with two touchdowns, the last after

they recovered an onside kick, in the final 61 seconds.

”I think this is one of the most mentally tough teams I’ve been

on through the close games that we’ve played,” said defensive end

Rob Ninkovich, an eight-year veterans, ”because the games that you

win by three, one, those are games that take a lot out of you and

we just keep coming back every week.”

The Patriots didn’t have to do that last Sunday when they never

trailed. But they did have to complete passes, kick field goals and

keep their footing throughout a game-long downpour.

”It doesn’t get much tougher than that as far as rain goes,”

said Stephen Gostkowski, who made all four field-goal attempts.

”You’ve just got to increase your focus.”

On a day when it was tough to throw a wet ball, Blount led the

way with a team record 334 all-purpose yards.

”Even if he wasn’t blocking someone, he was running someone

over,” left tackle Nate Solder said.

That’s just how Blount plays.

”It’s a mindset and the will of what’s at stake and the urgency

that we have to have to continue to be successful, and how

important this first-round bye was,” he said. ”It was one of our

best games by our offensive line. … You can’t say enough about

those guys, they’re tough.”

None more so than Mankins.

”I’ve coached a lot of tough guys. I don’t think there’s any

that I would put ahead of him,” Belichick said. ”Any time Logan

needs help getting off the field, you feel like it’s something

serious.”

So he was surprised when trainer Jim Whelan told him Mankins was

ready to go back in after sitting out one series.

”He’s a tough individual, tough-minded, physically and mentally

tough,” Belichick said. ”I think we have a lot of that on our

team.”

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org