Pats' Dillon makes most of fresh start

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The running back once known as "Villain Dillon" is still causing trouble.

Only this time, Corey Dillon is disrupting the other team, not his own.

After seven tumultuous seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, Dillon has found a new home and a new attitude with the New England Patriots, who face the Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday's AFC championship game.

His punishing running style has earned the respect of the offense, the admiration of the defense and the acceptance of Patriots fans. In gaining 144 yards in his playoff debut Sunday, Dillon was rewarded with chants of "Corey, Corey, Corey."

"[He's] the best running back in the league," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "He's really been a great leader. You know, I don't care what someone's reputation is. You come to this team, and you fit in. You can't help it. Corey had a great attitude coming in, and it's only gotten better."

The addition of Dillon has given the Patriots a running game they lacked the past two times they won the Super Bowl.

His 1,635 yards rushing was a career high, a franchise record and the third most in the NFL this season. It forced defenses to respect the run much more than they did when New England was limited with Antowain Smith.

Not only can Dillon pound the ball between the tackles, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound back also can break to the outside for big gains. He had seven runs of 20 yards or more this season, while Smith had 11 in three seasons.

"Having [Dillon] is just a plus, because he plays with so much heart and effort, and it's just contagious," Patriots tight end Christian Fauria said. "He is just the heart of the offense."

Mentioning heart and Dillon in the same breath once seemed like a joke.

This is the same Dillon who, four games into the 2000 season, quit on the Bengals. After getting stuffed by the Ravens early in the fourth quarter, he slammed the ball to the ground, stormed to the bench and refused to go back into the game.

This is the same Dillon who reportedly wanted a trade out of Cincinnati so badly last season that he walked into coach Marvin Lewis' team meeting wearing a Steelers cap.

The Patriots gambled by sending a second-round pick to Cincinnati for the moody Dillon, a move that has proved to benefit New England as much as Dillon.

"I came here to experience something like this," Dillon said. "I just love being around the guys and going out there and fighting. This is paying off.

"I'm ecstatic about being here. There's not a day that goes by I don't grab those guys and say, 'Thank you.'"

Count the Patriots' defense among the appreciative ones.

Dillon's grind-it-out rushing was the main reason New England's offense kept the ball out of the hands of the high-scoring Indianapolis Colts for nearly 38 of the game's 60 minutes in Sunday's 20-3 win. Inside linebacker Ted Johnson said he has become such a fan that he was going to a store and buy Dillon's jersey.

"We call him clock-killin' Corey Dillon," inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi said.

Dillon's effect on the offense is more evident.

Last season, with the 27th-ranked rushing attack, the Patriots threw the ball 53 percent of the time, replacing runs with short passes. This season, as the seventh-ranked rushing team, New England ran it 52 percent of the time.

"It's balanced out," said coach Bill Belichick said. "That's what we always wanted to be offensively, and this is the best we've been. He's had a lot to do with that."

How much of a difference-maker Dillon has become will be measured Sunday at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field.

In a 34-20 loss to the Steelers on Oct. 31, the Patriots were significantly hampered without Dillon, who was sidelined with a thigh injury. New England managed just 5 rushing yards, the second fewest in franchise history.

Asked how much Dillon's presence will affect the rematch, Belichick said, "We'll find out on Sunday. I'm glad we have him."

For Dillon to become a factor, he will once again have to prove his past wrong.

He has cracked 100 yards against the Steelers in two of 13 meetings, all of which came as a member of the Bengals. His average yards per game was a mediocre 68.7.

"It's not about me, it's about the team," Dillon said. "I just play hard every week and hope I give them a chance to win. That's all I can ask for."

NFC TITLE GAME

Atlanta (12-5) at Philadelphia (14-3)

When: Sunday, 3 p.m.

TV: Chs. 45, 5

Line: Eagles by 5

AFC TITLE GAME

New England (15-2) at Pittsburgh (16-1)

When: Sunday, 6:30 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Line: Patriots by 3

NFL playoffs

Wild-card results

AFC

Indianapolis 49, Denver 24 N.Y. Jets 20, San Diego 17, OT

NFC

Minnesota 31, Green Bay 17 St. Louis 27, Seattle 20

Divisional results

AFC

Pittsburgh 20, N.Y. Jets 17, OT New England 20, Indianapolis 3

NFC

Atlanta 47, St. Louis 17 Philadelphia 27, Minnesota 14

Conference championships

Sunday

NFC: Atlanta (12-5) at Philadelphia (14-3), 3 p.m., chs. 45, 5. Line: Philadelphia by 5. AFC: New England (15-2) at Pittsburgh (16-1), 6:30 p.m., chs. 13, 9. Line: New England by 3.

Super Bowl

Feb. 6

At Jacksonville, Fla., 6 p.m., chs. 45, 5

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