FOXBORO — Shane Vereen entered yesterday’s game an NFL afterthought.
In just his second NFL season, after being selected in the second round of the 2011 Draft, Vereen had been relegated to special teams duty and at times was listed as the Pats’ No. 4 back on the depth chart.
So who could have known, with a trip to the AFC Championship Game on the line, Vereen would deliver the performance of his life.
“It was a fun day,” said Vereen with a smile that could have lit Gillette Stadium. “Everything was on the line and I was expected to perform. When my number was called I was ready.”
Ready Vereen was.
The halfback scored a career-high three touchdowns, one less than his season total, and finished with 124 yards combined rushing and receiving, the second most of his career, proving a key catalyst in the Patriots’ 41-28 victory over the Houston Texans in the AFC Divisional round.
The win earned the Pats a berth in the AFC title game, back at Gillette on Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.
“Shane was a young man whose number was called and he was ready,” said receiver/special teams ace Matt Slater. “He was a true professional that prepared himself every day, and when we needed him he was a huge boost.”
Heading into the day, most would have placed Vereen’s chances of being the game’s MVP somewhere behind seldom-used Deion Branch and just slightly ahead of Tedy Bruschi, who of course retired three seasons ago.
But when Mr. Everything Danny Woodhead went down on the game’s first play with a thumb injury, Vereen found himself as the go-to speed back.
Then, when Rob Gronkowski left with an arm injury a possession later, the Patriots were badly in need of a playmaker.
In stepped Vereen, the most unlikely of stars, with the best performance by a player wearing No. 34 in Boston sports since either Paul Pierce in the 2008 NBA Finals or David Ortiz in the 2004 World Series. (That may be a bit of an overstatement, but maybe not).
“We hate to lose Woody and of course Rob,” said Vereen. “You could be nervous, but you can’t think about that going into the game. Everyone is counting on you, and that’s what the game is about. When my number was called I had to perform.”
What Vereen delivered was the best day of his NFL career, with five catches for 83 yards and two touchdowns and seven carries for 41 yards and a third score.
He wasted no time making his name heard, scoring the Pats’ first touchdown on a 1-yard plunge, a score he set up with a 25-yard run. He then struck again with New England’s second touchdown, snagging an 8-yard pass for a score to give his team a 17-3 lead.
But he saved his best for last. Lined up as a receiver to the left, Vereen sprinted down field and made a beautiful over-the-shoulder catch for a 33-yard touchdown.
“That was one awesome catch by Shane,” said All-Pro guard Logan Mankins. “A really great catch. He also had some nice runs. We have a lot of faith in him and (fellow back Stevan) Ridley.”
Texans coach Gary Kubiak was also wowed by the catch, in which Vereen toasted a linebacker who was mismatched in coverage.
“The catch that kid made on the deep ball, WOW,” said Kubiak. “What a play. I’ve been doing this a long time and that was tremendous.”
Vereen’s numbers are especially impressive since the halfback he had just four touchdowns on the season, and five for his NFL career.
It was just the second time in his career he had 20 or more receiving yards — the other a 91-yard day in the Thanksgiving massacre of the Jets— and had only once rushed for more yards — 49 in the first meeting of the year against the Jets.
In very limited duty a year ago as a rookie he had just 57 yards and one touchdown rushing and didn’t catch a single pass.
“He really came through,” said Slater. “He spent the season preparing himself and has done a great job. He has been a great teammate, and did really nice work. I’m especially happy for him because he’s a Southern California guy too (Slater attended UCLA, Vereen played at Cal ).”
Hardly a monster, listed at 5-foot-9 and a generous 205 pounds, Vereen certainly came up huge when the bright lights were finally on him last night, and was clearly savoring the performance after the game.
“Guys go down and you have to step in,” he said. “It’s been a lot of practice and a lot of coaching all year to keep me sharp. I knew what was on the line, and I wanted to take advantage.”