FOXBORO, Mass. — On the Buffalo Bills’ final offensive play Sunday, New England Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe successfully navigated a pick, tracked Zay Jones across the middle and slapped away a pass intended for the wide receiver.
The pass breakup had zero impact on the final result — the Patriots followed it up with two kneeldowns to close out a 23-3 victory — but it meant the world to Rowe, who’d spent the previous two months laboriously rehabbing his injured groin.
“The minute I hurt my groin again, obviously I was feeling down,” Rowe said Wednesday. “And all the work I had to do to get back up to full speed, I was happy just being out there. And then to make a play, too — even though it was at the end of the game and we had the game in hand – to me, mentally, it was a confidence thing. Like, ‘OK, it’s coming back.’ ”
Rowe, the Patriots’ primary nickel cornerback from early last season until this September, initially injured his groin in a Week 2 win over the New Orleans Saints, then rushed his way back onto the field and injured it again in Week 4. He knew right away the second injury would sideline him for the foreseeable future.
“I kind of knew,” Rowe said. “Especially the next day afterward when things get sore. And then after a week, I was like, ‘Yeah, this one’s going to be a while.’ Even though I didn’t want it to be like that — shoot, I couldn’t even run, so I couldn’t control it.”
Rowe wound up missing seven games. He returned to practice following the Patriots’ Week 9 bye, but it took him nearly a month to regain his speed, agility and stamina.
“My first week of practice out there, even the practice speed, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is fast,’ ” he said. “And then I had to (get) my quick reaction back, because it was still hurting when I’d quick twitch. And then the deep balls. So I had to work through all that before I could even show the coaches the confidence that they could put me out there.”
After playing 15 snaps in a reserve role against the Bills, Rowe is confident he is back at full strength. But he might not get his old job back anytime soon.
Second-year pro Jonathan Jones has been excellent since taking over as the Patriots’ No. 3 corner, and with Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler both entrenched in their starting spots, there really is nowhere to put Rowe right now outside of dime and quarter packages.
Rowe seems to understand this. Given how well the defense played in his absence (11.9 points allowed per game during the team’s current eight-game win streak), he knows he’ll need to earn any playing time he receives. He just wants to a be as prepared as possible for when those opportunities do come.
“For me personally, my focus is on working back into the defense, trying to contribute any way I can,” Rowe said. “In Buffalo, I was in the backup role. I was just happy to be out there. Steph went down for a couple snaps, and they threw me out there. I don’t want to be the guy that they throw out there and then I mess up. That would really mess me up mentally. So right now, whatever role I have, I’m just like, ‘You’ve got to take advantage of it.’ “