New England Patriots  

 

Jonas Gray gives AFC-best Patriots another dimension

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Jonas Gray approached his locker and the unfamiliar sight of a cluster of reporters waiting for him and staring at his backpack and lip balm and blurted out, "You stole my secrets!"

The Patriots let the secret out Sunday night, unleashing Gray on an overwhelmed Colts defense and a league that must look at this tougher, well-rounded incarnation of the Patriots and shudder. Perhaps the result -- a victory over the Colts -- was not a surprise. But the dominance -- the Patriots won 42-20 -- on a night when Tom Brady was not his sharpest, signaled that the Patriots have again assumed their spot at the top of the AFC. At 8-2, they now hold a one-game lead over the Broncos and the Chiefs, with an added dimension of power football.

Near the end, the Indianapolis fans made their way out into a snowy night, another dispirited group that had just seen a nightmare. Over the years, it has been normal for opponents of the Patriots to send their loyalists home with broken hearts. There is no immediate reason for that in Indianapolis. The Colts remain the best of the AFC South, and they will make the playoffs.

But Andrew Luck said he was thankful it wasn't their last game of the season because the Colts would be sick to their stomachs and you could understand if that unsettled feeling was spreading around the AFC on Sunday night. This is a Patriots team in full, so far removed from that September thrashing in Kansas City that it seems as if it happened in another season. This version has a settled offensive line, a throwback running back, and, not incidentally, a six-game winning streak. The irony is that when the Patriots were looking their worst, when that loss to the Chiefs had plenty wondering if the Patriots were finally winding down, coach Bill Belichick was already seeing enough in Gray to tell him that he was close to joining the active roster. Rather than winding down, the Patriots, with Gray, elevated themselves above the rest of the field.

Gray is so unused to the star turns that he hurried to get dressed, an accommodation to reporters that is rare among the seasoned Patriots who know, after years at the pinnacle, that the media will wait for them. But Gray actually got a hint that his wait was about to end this week. On Saturday, as Gray arrived at the Patriots complex, owner Robert Kraft pulled him aside.

"He said 'You're going to have a big game this week so be ready,'" Gray said.

Even Kraft probably didn't imagine 38 rushes for 199 yards and four touchdowns, which equaled the number of combined touchdowns scored by all the other running backs in the league Sunday. At 5-foot-10 and 230 pounds, Gray is the kind of brute force big back New England needs; the Patriots established how much they wanted the run to dominate with their use of an extra lineman throughout the game.

To answer the question, Gray, undrafted out of Notre Dame, spent one season in Miami recovering from a knee injury he suffered in college, and then another in Baltimore on the practice squad, without ever playing in a game. But in Miami, he got to watch how Reggie Bush worked. In Baltimore, he got to practice against an established starting defense.

"A lot of it has to do with patience," Gray said. "I looked at it that I was working on my craft. Leadership guys have been here a long time -- I followed their lead."

On Sunday, the Patriots largely followed him, the rare time when Brady needed help. On the Patriots' first drive, they went 89 yards on 11 plays, all but 12 of the yards on the ground. Whatever questions might have been left over about New England's offensive line from that shaky season start should have long been answered.

"It was definitely a tone setter," Gray said. "Guys did a good job up front. They were picking me up after every play, giving me little pointers here and there, what they want me to do."

Gray said he does not look for the home run, preferring to run downhill and get extra yardage by punching the defender out of the way. That is an element of grit -- also exemplified by Rob Gronkowski blocking a Colts defender all the way out of bounds before hurling him to the ground, drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty -- that the Patriots haven't always had and it could be the difference as they try to separate themselves from the rest of the conference.

"We've got a lot of weapons," Gray said. "You never know when guys will have a big game."

The secret is out on Gray, though. And maybe on playoff seeding, too.

"I'll probably go home when we get back at 4 a.m. and just lay in bed and look at the ceiling," Gray said. "And be just astonished at what is going on."

Opposing coaches might do the same.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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