FOXBOROUGH - For a split second, or the time it takes him to burst past the line of scrimmage, Patriot Laurence Maroney pondered the audacity of the question: Where did he summon the ability to run with such authority in last Saturday's 31-20 Divisional playoff victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars?
Authority? Maroney mockingly arched his eyebrows.
What audacity, indeed.
"Oh, did I?" said the second-year running back as he playfully sparred with one of the many media inquisitors who surrounded his locker Thursday afternoon at Gillette Stadium. "I thought I still had my tap shoes on. I thought I was still tap dancing."
Quite the contrary. Although he might have been accused earlier in the season of being prone to performing an old soft-shoe routine when he carried the ball, Maroney took a different approach against Jacksonville, running with purposeful strides for 122 yards on 22 carries, including a 1-yard touchdown.
Which brought Maroney back to the original question: Where did that kind of running come from?
"It's been there all the time," he said. "I do have the power; you just have to know when to use it and when not to use it and what type of game it's going to be. That was a physical, downhill game that deserved a downhill running style."
With wind gusts of up to 30 miles per hour and an arctic front expected to plunge temperatures into single digits, Maroney expects he will need to take the same approach in tomorrow's AFC Championship game against the San Diego Chargers, whose defense forced a league-leading 48 turnovers (including 30 interceptions) during the regular season.
"They have a real physical defense, real big guys out there," Maroney said. "It's not going to be too many moves you can make out there on the field. It's going to be a one cut and downhill kind of game."
That might be easier said than done against the Chargers.
"It's going to be a challenge for us because they like to strip, they like to get turnovers, they like to cause fumbles," Maroney said. "So, hopefully, our stats stay the same and we don't give them the ball and give them opportunities to put points on the board and just keep the ball in our possession."
Maroney's 100-yard rushing effort against the Jaguars was his third in the last four games. The 122 yards ranked as the third most in Patriots playoff history behind Curtis Martin's 166 in a 1996 Divisional triumph over Pittsburgh and Corey Dillon's 144 against Indianapolis in the 2004 AFC Championship game.
And while on the surface it appeared Maroney ran with more authority, coach Bill Belichick seemed to disagree.
"I think he's run hard all year," Belichick said. "I think he ran hard last year. Kickoff returns and when the opportunity he's in, I don't think that's ever been a question. I think he's run hard and determined. I'm not saying every play is a great play, but I think that his effort and his toughness running the ball, his intensity, I think has been good ever since he's been there."
After splitting time with Dillon as a rookie, Maroney knew it was imperative to step up his offseason conditioning to give him a chance to make it through the season healthy. He was inactive for three games in October because of a groin injury, and has been fresh for the Patriots' pursuit of perfection.
"Coming into the season, I knew I was going to have to play a bigger role than I did last year, and so I had to be ready for whatever they had for me," said Maroney, who rushed for a career-high 156 yards in a 28-7 triumph over the Dolphins Dec. 23.
Maroney said he made his biggest offseason gains "just in the in-school stuff. Just learning the offense better and learning the concept of the offense and why we do the things we do, and just learning defenses better."
With Tom Brady throwing an NFL-record 50 touchdown passes and Randy Moss racking up an NFL-record 23 TD receptions, New England's running game seemed to become an afterthought.
And now? "It feels good to get out there and be productive in the running game," said Maroney, who rushed 185 times for 835 yards and six TDs during the regular season.
"It's not like we didn't run the ball; we didn't have to. People were giving up the pass, and if you've got Randy Moss and Donte' Stallworth and all the other great receivers we have on our team, I'd pass it to them, too.
"The running game really didn't have to prove itself then, and it kept us fresh for the season, so it's better late than never to have a fresh running game right now."
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.