Underused Maroney stars when it counts most

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Laurence Maroney ran to his left and waited. His chance was about to come.

Tom Brady scanned the defense then turned toward him and threw a short pass. Underutilized most of the season, Maroney, caught it and raced up the left side for a 33-yard gain. It was the Patriots second offensive play.

"Hopefully, I was going to catch them sleeping, and I did," he said.

Eight plays later -- two of them runs by Maroney -- and the Patriots had a touchdown and were on their way to Saturday night's 31-20 playoff win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Now the 21st pick of the 2006 draft - nine spots before the Colts Joseph Addai - is waiting for the AFC championship game against the San Diego Chargers next Sunday and another comparison by which he falls short. That would be NFL rushing leader LaDainian Tomlinson.

Tomlinson's status is uncertain after a knee injury sidelined him for most of Sunday's 28-24 win over the Indianapolis.

Still, there's no longer any doubt about Maroney, a bystander most of the season to New England's record-breaking combo of Brady and Randy Moss. Opponents realize they must pay attention to the shifty 220-pounder who doesn't mind running over would-be tacklers.

"I don't think he probably had all of the opportunities he would have hoped," Brady said. "But his role has been whatever he's got and he's been extremely productive."

Not really, unless the quarterback is talking about the last four games.

In the first 13, Maroney missed three with a groin injury and cracked the 100-yard rushing barrier just once. Early on, he even shared time with Sammy Morris, a free agent pickup expected to be a backup, until a chest injury in the sixth game ended Morris' season.

But Maroney still had to wait his turn as a runner. The passing game was just too productive.

"I knew that our passing game was doing an excellent job this whole year," Maroney said after scoring the Patriots final touchdown of the regular season in a 38-35 win over the New York Giants. "If people were going to keep letting us pass the ball, then why not keep passing it?"

He had rushed for a total of just 112 yards in a four-game stretch that brought the Patriots to 13-0. Moss by himself gained more than that as a receiver in two different games in that stretch.

Wait, Maroney kept saying, his day would come.

It did in the next game - and the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after that.

"Sooner than later, the running game had to kick in and when they did turn to it, I knew we had to be prepared," he said after Saturday's win.

In the critical stretch when the Patriots tried to finish off the first 16-0 season in NFL history, Maroney rushed for 104 yards in the 14th game, a career-high 156 in the 15th with gains of 59 and 51 yards, and two touchdowns in the 16th.

Then he piled up 122 on the ground against Jacksonville, nearly twice the total of 66 of Taylor and Jones-Drew. And he did it on 22 carries, his second busiest game of the season.

"For half the year, Tom Brady was doing it all by himself with the receivers," running back Heath Evans said. "And, during the most important time of the year, Maroney stepped up."

His college career at Minnesota prepared Maroney for this.

In 2003 and 2004, he and Marion Barber, now with Dallas, shared time. They both came through, becoming the first teammates in NCAA Division 1-A to each rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons.

Then Maroney split time as a rookie with Corey Dillon, who retired after the season. Dillon rushed for 812 yards and Maroney 745. He finished this regular season with 835 yards rushing and six touchdowns, four of them in the last three games.

Before Maroney pounded the Jaguars, the last Patriot to rush for more than 100 yards in a playoff game was Dillon with 144 against Indianapolis on Jan. 16, 2005. Curtis Martin holds the team playoff record with 166 against Pittsburgh on Jan. 5, 1997.

Against the Jaguars, Maroney had a hand in three touchdowns.

His 1-yard run put the Patriots ahead 14-7. His 22-yard gain set up Brady's 6-yard scoring pass to Wes Welker that gave New England a 21-14 lead. Then his consecutive runs of 29 and 11 yards led to Brady's 9-yard scoring pass to Ben Watson that made it 28-17.

"We have been here and worked hard, and knew we would finally get a chance to show the world that we do have some type of running game," he said.

Now he must wait for a chance to do it again on Sunday.

"Laurence, thank God, lost it there for a little bit," Brady said. "But he's obviously found his way."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

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