ATL: What We Learned  

 

What we learned: Blount leads way for New England

The Patriots are a run-first team that just happens to be led by Tom Brady. New England keeps winning by always evolving, covering up its weaknesses and learning its strengths.

That's why Bill Belichick has such a great record in December. He and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels realized that the team's running game, led by LeGarrette Blount, was their best bet for postseason success.

Blount became the first player in NFL history with at least 150 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a playoff game during the team's 43-22 win Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts. (And that was actually a comedown from his Week 17 performance against the Buffalo Bills.) After the Bills game, we wrote that Blount was face of this strangely effective Patriots season.

The guys you expected to lead the way are on the bench or injured reserve. (More than 20 percent of the Patriots' salary cap is out for the season.) It's still strange Julian Edelman as the No. 1 receiver for one of the best offenses in the league. It's even more odd that Blount, a player that was traded for Jeff Demps (!) in April, is playing so well.

With Seattle beating New Orleans 23-15 early Saturday, the NFL's final four will have a run-heavy feel to it. The 49ers and Panthers are both built on running and defense. If San Diego somehow wins in Denver on Sunday night, expect to read a lot of "Defense and running lives!" articles in the coming week.

Here's what else we learned from Saturday's two games:

1. Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins is going to be a star. We can't think of many 250-pound linebackers that can rush the passer, blow up the running game and cover tight ends in the passing game. Collins had three quarterback hits, two tackles for loss, one sack, one interception and one pass defensed. His pick of Andrew Luck showed off his incredible athleticism.

This performance has been building for a while as Collins has opened eyes down the stretch. There's no way the Patriots are going to re-sign inside linebacker Brandon Spikes. (Even though they have very different playing styles.)

2. After struggling most of the day, give the Patriots defense credit for their play in the final 20 minutes. The Colts' last five drives: Three-and-out, 12 yards and punt, interception, three-and-out, interception.

3. Andrew Luck needs a lot more help. That's obvious. He took a lot of chances Saturday because the quality of his team demanded it. One thing we learned late this season: Luck is closer to a Favre-McNair-Roethlisberger style of play at this point in his career compared to a Brady-Manning-like surgeon. That's not necessarily a bad thing.

4. Perhaps the most disappointing part of this Colts season: Chuck Pagano's defense got worse as time wore on. The Indianapolis run defense was bad all year. Its linebackers and safeties took bad angles. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton entered the season espousing a power running approach, but the unit never improved. (Trent Richardson had one rushing yard on Saturday and no one noticed. He turned into a non-story.) By January, it was Luck and not much else.

5. The Saints have to be concerned moving forward that their offense doesn't travel. Drew Brees' final stats don't look awful, but he missed a ton of throws for the fourth straight outdoor game. New Orleans couldn't get anything going to the outside to their receivers.

6. Earl Thomas deserves a ton of credit for shutting down Jimmy Graham. To the victors goes the trash talk.

7. Seattle's defense impresses every week because of its depth. Michael Bennett, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner, Thomas and Richard Sherman all had standout performances on Saturday.

8. Seattle's victory was Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider's vision come to life. The Seahawks are built to win ugly. The majority of the players are homegrown. Other players like Cliff Avril and Bennett were bargains in free agency. Like New England, Seattle has a knack for focusing on what a player does best and maximizing his talent.

9. The Seahawks' passing game hasn't looked good for more than a month. Give Seattle some credit for letting Russell Wilson throw the ball on third-and-4 with a one-score lead late in the game. He came through with a gorgeous throw to Doug Baldwin, who had an even better catch on the sideline. One play later, Marshawn Lynch did his thing.

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