Gray's emergence makes issue of AFC's best simple as black & white
The quarterbacking matchup between Andrew Luck and Tom Brady colored the pregame hype.
But on this Sunday night, the star was Jonas Gray.
Or as he may be known across the NFL: Who???
Exactly one month ago, any of the league’s other 31 teams could have signed Gray off New England’s practice squad. He was previously cut by Miami and Baltimore. He had never even made a 53-man roster in two-plus seasons before finally being promoted by the Patriots following a season-ending knee injury suffered by starting running back Stevan Ridley.
Now? Gray holds the franchise’s single-game record for rushing touchdowns. He scored four during a 38-carry, 199-yard outing to pace New England’s 42-20 rout of Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“I had an indication all week I was going to be a big part of the game plan,” Gray said to the media throng packed in front of his locker afterward. “We knew getting back to the run game was going to be a big emphasis.
“It’s kind of funny because on Saturday, I remember walking into the building and (Patriots owner Robert) Kraft pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re going to have a big game this week, so be ready.’”
Clearly, the Colts weren’t.
From the opening drive when Gray carried four times for 34 yards, including a four-yard touchdown run through the heart of the defense, Indianapolis never had an answer in what outside linebacker Erik Walden described as a “gross” performance by his unit.
“Every time I looked up (Gray) was carrying two or three guys,” Patriots right guard Ryan Wendell said.
The 5-foot-10, 230-pound Gray was so dominant that one gets the feeling New England could have called his number on every snap and Indianapolis still wouldn’t have stopped him from rumbling forward. Colts head coach Chuck Pagano must have sensed the same. Why else would Pagano decide to go for it on fourth-and-10 from his own team’s 32-yard line rather than punt with 8:21 remaining and his team only trailing by two scores (35-20)?
Pagano’s gamble failed when wide receiver Reggie Wayne couldn’t handle a Luck pass with Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis applying tight coverage. New England put the game away shortly thereafter with Rob Gronkowski turning a short Brady completion into a 26-yard touchdown by breaking three tackles en route to the end zone.
It’s no coincidence that Gronkowski’s resurgence as the NFL’s most dangerous tight end has coincided with the Patriots (8-2) going on a six-game winning streak to post the AFC’s best record. The superlative play of Brady and New England’s defense also has put the Patriots in the driver’s seat for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with victories over the conference’s three other division leaders — Cincinnati, Denver and now the Colts.
Gray, though, is the latest example of why the Patriots Way remains the gold standard for how a franchise should be run.
While marquee personnel like Brady, Gronkowski and Revis plays an enormous part in the team’s success, head coach Bill Belichick is also renowned for getting the best out of rejects, castoffs, late-round picks and undrafted players like wide receiver Julian Edelman and linebacker Rob Ninkovich. Gray now joins that list of those whose specific skill sets are utilized to their fullest in Patriots game plans and personnel groupings that change from week to week like no other team in the league.
As a senior at Notre Dame in 2011, Gray suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament that ruined his chances of being drafted. He signed as a free agent with the Miami Dolphins and spent some time on the team’s practice squad before being released. The same happened with Baltimore in 2013. Gray then signed with New England last January, was cut again at the end of training camp and brought back to the practice squad.
If Ridley were healthy, he might still be stuck there.
“He’s a fighter,” Patriots center Bryan Stork said of Gray. “He finds the hole.”
While the Patriots were getting monster production out of a nobody, the Colts were languishing with another nothing performance from a rusher whom the team foolishly surrendered a first-round draft pick to acquire from Cleveland in 2013. Trent Richardson finished with zero yards on seven carries. Backup Ahmad Bradshaw also was stuffed (four carries for seven yards) and suffered what may be a serious lower-leg injury that knocked him out of the game in the fourth quarter.
The final output of 19 yards on the ground was the fourth-lowest total ever surrendered by New England.
Luck can usually compensate for the Colts’ rushing deficiencies. But while he enjoyed a better outing statistically than Brady, the Indianapolis passing game simply couldn’t keep pace, just like when New England ran all over the Colts in last season’s second-round playoff thumping.
“We knew we had to run it and stop it and we did neither,” Pagano admitted. “We had 14 yards rushing at half and they had 143. I think they finished with at least 250 on the ground. Any time that happens, you’re going to get beat like we got beat today.”
For the record, it was 244 yards. And Gray will remember every one that he contributed.
“I’ll probably go home tonight when we get back around 4 a.m., lay in bed look up at the ceiling and be just astonished at what’s going on,” Gray said with a smile on his face. “It’s just writing a great story.”
One comprised of his own shades of Gray for a team whose supremacy is again becoming black-and-white.