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There when you need him

Posted by Tom Wilcox December 4, 2008 05:55 AM

With just about everyone on the Patriots’ roster making some sort of mistake against the Steelers in the miserable conditions last Sunday at Gillette Stadium, the one guy the Pats could rely on is the same guy they’ve depended on for 10 seasons.All the attention has focused on Matt Cassel filling in so well for Tom Brady, but without Kevin Faulk stepping up for three injured running backs, the Patriots would probably not be in the playoff hunt at all.

Despite entering the season fourth on the depth chart, Faulk leads the team in rushing with 445 yards on 73 carries for a 6.1 yards-per-carry average and three touchdowns. In addition to his usual reliability as a receiver out of the backfield (43 catches, 363 yards), Faulk is just 86 yards behind team leader Wes Welker in combined yards. He has also accounted for more yards than Randy Moss.Faulk continues to be steady on special teams as well. After Matt Slater’s crippling fumble on a kickoff return in the third quarter against Pittsburgh, it was no coincidence that the sure-handed Faulk replaced Slater on the next return. But in the end, the Patriots’ five turnovers were too much to overcome in the 33-10 defeat.

“It’s always frustrating when you turn the ball over and then when you finish the game with a loss,” said Faulk. “That’s the most frustrating thing you can do, but the season’s not over yet. We have to come back, watch the film, look for our mistakes, and come back and be ready to play next week.”

Although no one else accounted for more than 45 yards against the Steelers, Faulk had his second straight 100-yard game from scrimmage with 73 rushing and 48 receiving yards on seven catches. He had a 41-yard rush in the second quarter, the third-longest rush of his career and longest since a career-long 45-yard touchdown run in 2002.

He seems to be getting better with age. The 32-year-old has three runs of more than 20 yards in the last three games after having just three rushes of 20 yards or more in his previous five seasons combined. His 445 yards rushing is the most he’s had in a season since 2003.

Although Faulk was not in a celebratory mood after the loss, it was a historic day for him on several fronts. He moved past Irving Fryar into fourth place on the Patriots’ all-time receptions list with 364 and has caught a pass in 42 straight regular-season games in which he has appeared. Sunday was also his 134th game as a Patriot, moving him into the top 25 on the franchise’s all-time games played list.

The succinct Faulk never takes credit for the success of the offense. He always defers to the team as a whole. In that respect, you can see why coach Bill Belichick has leaned on him for so long. “He has made a lot of plays since I have been here and before. He has been a very dependable and consistent player,” said Belichick. “It seems like you can always count on Kevin no matter what phase of the game it is in.”

It’s raining again
Leading up to last Sunday’s game, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he hoped it would be snowing or raining when they played the Patriots because that is “Steeler-type” weather. After Mike Vrabel’s interception on the first possession of the game led to a New England touchdown, it looked as though Tomlin would be eating those words.But as the game progressed, the elements clearly favored the Steelers. After Vrabel’s interception, Pittsburgh did not turn the ball over again, while the Patriots had three crucial fumbles and two interceptions that led to 20 Steelers points.

“We kind of embrace the bad weather. That’s kind of our group,” said Tomlin. “We’ve got a quarterback [Ben Roethlisberger] from Finley, Ohio. That’s how we play football.”The steady rain also limited the Patriots’ game plan — they were not able to spread the field in the passing game. New England has now fumbled 16 times this season, losing 10. The Patriots’ defense also allowed 20 points after turnovers against the Steelers after allowing just 13 total points in the first 10 games of the season.“That was really the difference in the game, the turnovers,” said Belichick.

Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots for OT and can be reached at twilcox@globe.com

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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
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