FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Next man up.
Those three words have echoed through the halls of Gillette Stadium all year, like the voice of a nagging mother reminding you to do your homework, brush your teeth or finish your vegetables.
Those words returned when linebacker Brandon Spikes (knee, tardiness) was placed on injured reserve on Monday. Usually, the sound of those words has induced similar eye rolls. On Saturday, Patriots fans were probably wide-eyed at the sight of rookie linebacker Jamie Collins delivering one big play after another in what was clearly his breakout performance of the year.
That it was a postseason game? That just makes it that much sweeter.
"It was kind of a difference but like I said, every game is the same to me," Collins said. "Just go out there, do what you have to do, and hopefully it comes out on the positive end."
Collins came out more on the positive end on Saturday than any game this season, with six total tackles, a sack, two quarterback hits, a pass-defensed and an interception, but Collins was making plays even when they weren't showing up on the stat sheet.
He got pressure on quarterback Andrew Luck to help force an interception, and had nice coverage on tight end Coby Fleener on three incomplete passes -- two down the sideline and one in the end zone.
"As you saw today, he's out there on split out tight end covering them on fade patterns and he's blitzing up the middle and he's making tackles in line," Belichick said. "I think he's pretty comfortable wherever he is whether he's out in space and covering a guy 20 yards downfield or one-on-one coverage with no help or whether he's in line taking on blockers or blitzing or covering tight ends from in close. He's a very versatile athlete that's smart, works hard, really has a great team attitude. I love having him on our team."
Patriots players love having him on their team, too.
"Jamie is an unbelievable talent, athlete," said teammate Rob Ninkovich. "I mean, the guy can run, he can cover, he's fast and explosive, he can get up and rush. You see a guy like that, and he's one of those guys that's got that wow factor -- you see him play the cut, spin on the ground and still make the tackle. His future in the NFL is very bright, so I'm happy that he's on our defense and he's playing well now."
Collins couldn't have picked a better time to have the best game of his young NFL career -- with the loss of Spikes and the playoff atmosphere -- and another performance like this in the AFC Championship Game will go a long way in making the Patriots' Super Bowl dreams a reality.
Both the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers feature athletic tight ends with great skills in the receiving game. Whether it's the Broncos' Julius Thomas or the Chargers' Antonio Gates, Collins will have a big challenge ahead of him in coverage.
As we learned on Saturday, though, coverage is just one of many things Collins can do at a high level. It's a good thing, because the Patriots will need all of it, regardless of their next opponent.
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