Originally created 01/16/04

Smith runs back into picture for Patriots



FOXBORO, Mass. -- When the wind comes in from the Atlantic and the temperature drops, quarterbacks worry about gripping the ball and defenders wonder whether their frozen pads will protect them. The ball feels like a rock to kickers and receivers.

And a smile comes to Antowain Smith's face.

"That's better for me, then," he said as an icy cold descended over the New England postseason.

It is supposed to be in the 20s or low 30s - perhaps even with snow - when the New England Patriots host the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game Sunday. And that means that even though both teams have MVP-caliber quarterbacks, they might have to scuttle passing games and grind it out on the ground.

That shouldn't be a problem for the Colts, who have one of the league's top rushers in Edgerrin James. Finally getting back to form after tearing a knee ligament during the 2001 season, James ran for 1,259 yards this season - his third with more than 1,000 yards - and added another 125 in last week's playoff victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

"He has all of the elements that you look for in a top running back," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "He can run over them, he can make them miss, he has good hands out of the backfield, and he is a good decision maker. ... You are talking about a really special guy."

The Patriots have a different approach. Smith is the guy who runs over people. Kevin Faulk is the one who makes them miss.

"They are more of a tandem - a 1-2 punch," Colts linebacker Marcus Washington said. "Smith is more of a north-and-south guy, while Faulk is more of a cutback guy."

Smith has been posing problems for defenses lately.

Smith led Buffalo in rushing in 1997 and '98, and he was expected to take over for the aging Thurman Thomas. But by 2000, the Bills were looking elsewhere, and after they used a second-round draft pick on Travis Henry in 2001, Smith was released.

Signing with New England seemed to rejuvenate Smith.

He ran for 1,157 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first year with the Patriots to help them win their first NFL championship. He gained 92 yards on 18 carries in the Super Bowl as New England beat the St. Louis Rams 20-17.

Last year, though, Smith had 982 yards and six touchdowns in a Patriots offense that rarely called upon him. That's the image fullback Larry Centers had in mind until he signed with New England.

"I never had a full appreciation for his talent. But now I've seen him here, how hard he works and his level of preparation," Centers said Thursday. "He's better than I ever thought he was."

Centers had heard about how Smith failed his conditioning test at training camp in consecutive years. How he is only capable of running in one direction. How he isn't much of a pass-catcher.

"You think he's just going to go out and run over people," Centers said. "But he knows the ins and outs on the field. He is a student of the game."

Smith struggled again at the start of this season, running for 7 yards on six carries in the season opener, a 31-0 loss to Buffalo. After gaining 80 yards on 16 carries in Week 5 - by far his best performance to that point - he was inactive for the next two weeks, in part because of a shoulder injury.

His numbers when he returned weren't much better - 123 yards in four games - before he sat out the Nov. 30 matchup with Indianapolis. It wasn't until the 15th game of the season that Smith really broke out, running for 121 yards on 18 carries against the New York Jets.

After gaining 74 yards in the regular season finale against Buffalo, he opened the playoffs with 69 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.

Belichick is generally pleased with Smith's performance and with how he fits into the running game. Even though Smith, Faulk and fill-in Mike Cloud have run for more than 100 yards just once as individuals, they've combined for more than 100 yards in eight games.

"Our backs have had production all through the year, different guys with different levels of production," Belichick said. "It varies from situation to situation, and also sometimes the game plans or the conditions in the game. ... It is not orchestrated in any particular way. It has just worked out that way."