EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 27, 2008

A decade later, Faulk still ticking

Bill Burt

FOXBORO — Kevin Faulk was sitting in front of his locker stall, talking on a cell phone when a second wave of writers arrived waiting for some of his insight.

Was he talking to his agent, maybe looking for a new contract after his big game — 10 rushes for 60 yards and four catches for 47 yards, including the game-winning 15-yard touchdown catch with 3:13 remaining?

"No, no, no," he assured after the Patriots' 23-16 win over the St. Louis Rams. "Beggars can't be choosers. Everything's fine (with my contract). Just doing my job. That's all."

The man of few words made a lot of people around New England happy, again.

The Patriots are contenders again, now 5-2 and back in first place in the AFC East, tied with the Buffalo Bills.

Quarterback Matt Cassel threw for a career-high 267 yards, helping the Patriots overcome a three-point deficit while guiding the offense to the winning score for the first fourth-quarter comeback of his career.

The Patriots defense, with defensive backs many people had never heard of prior to 2008, allowed only three fourth-quarter first downs, before an interception by cornerback Deltha O'Neal with 1:26 remaining to end the game.

And the Patriots were able to win despite playing without their three every-down running backs, who were out due to injury.

Now in his 10th season as a Patriot, Faulk, 32, was the difference between being tied for the AFC East division lead or falling to 4-3.

"Kevin Faulk is a beast," said Rams tight end Anthony Becht, who saw plenty of Faulk in his five seasons with the New York Jets from 2000 through 2004. "He is the most underrated player in the league. I've been going against him my entire career. Even when they've had all of those great players, including (Tom) Brady, I can't tell you how many times I've seen him make a play to beat me."

Yesterday's had a cherry on top. Faulk was not a trickster. He was the Patriots' go-to back, a role he has rarely held here.

But with Laurence Maroney gone for good in 2008, and Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan in civvies, Faulk got a few more calls.

He ran the ball 13 times, something he has not done since the 2004 season.

With the Patriots in a pass-happy mode for most of the game, with three- and four-wide receiver sets for most of the game, Faulk's touches were usually in space. That makes it easier for him as at 5-8, 202 pounds he's not made to run between the tackles.

"The problem with stopping Faulk is he can do a little of everything," said Rams linebacker Gary Stills. "He's quick. He's got good hands. He can run around you and sometimes he tries to run over you. He's really a pain. He's the one guy we knew would give us the most trouble."

In the fourth quarter, Faulk was the featured running back on all downs.

On the eventual game-winning play, Faulk was covered by a linebacker, 240-pound Pisa Tinoisamoa, one-on-one, on the left side. When that happens, whoever is playing quarterback is going to change the play and go to Faulk.

Cassel faked to Faulk near the 10-yard line before lobbing it up to him on the left side of the end zone. While being popped, he deftly held onto the ball and got his feet in.

"It's not about separation with Kevin," said Patriots fullback Heath Evans. "It's about getting the ball to him. If you do, he will get it. ... If you're going to put it in one person's hands, it might as well be his."

We're almost at the halfway point and we still haven't figured out these Patriots.

Are they Super Bowl caliber? Are they even a playoff team?

Nobody knows.

But everybody knows the Patriots might have the biggest bargain in pro football in Faulk, at $2.8 million ($3.3 million in 2009).

Among Bill Belichick's best buys — cheap and productive — the former LSU All-American might beat them all.

"He has made a lot of plays since I've been here and before," said Belichick. "It seems you can always count on Kevin no matter what phase of the game it is in, whether it is returning kicks, blocking, pass protection, catching, running, two-point plays or being on the goal line. He is a clutch player."

Becht concurred.

"The Patriots are lucky to have him," said Becht. "I know one thing, I wish he was on my team. And from talking to a lot of guys around the league, a lot of other teams feel the same way."

E-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.