The New England Patriots have become known as a pass-first team with Tom Brady at the helm of the ship, but relied on their running game to close out the season with a big win in week 17 against the Buffalo Bills.
The Patriots held the top scoring performance in NFL history on the strength of Tom's arm; and it was six years ago that Brady set the single-season TD record for a QB before Peyton Manning and the Broncos broke both records this year. And this season has not been a banner year for the New England passing attack, as their best performances have come on the heels of a strong, diverse running game.
Although they failed to produce a 1,000 yard rusher just a year removed from Stevan Ridley's 1263 yard stint, the running backs did come through when Brady could not. In the grand scheme of things, one cannot fault Brady for struggling with a nearly complete overhaul of his receiving corps. But he managed to connect with his only hold-over from 2012, Julian Edelman, for over 1,000 yards throught the air on over 100 receptions (Wes who?).
Having done just enough to win in several contests this year, the rushing game played a pivotal role more often than not. The Patriots managed to rank 12th in the league with 1279 yards as they started the day, and put over 200 yards on the Bills on the ground. Much of that total was without the services of Shane Vereen, a threat through the air, as well as, running the rock.
They also suffered early with fumbles that resulted in lead back Ridley getting time riding the bench for his offenses. Even Blount and Brady weren't perfect handling the ball, adding to the woes of the offense.
But when Josh McDaniels utilizes his running weapons, this offense has performed better than when relying on the pass. Brady has been sacked a whopping 44 times, the most in his illustrious career. Along with his lowest TD rate, passing the ball has been a chore.
The Patriots sport four RBs with significant yardage this season: Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, Shane Vereen, and Brandon Bolden. Vereen and Bolden have also helped in the passing game, coming out of the backfield for even greater contribution to the team offense; both outperformed all tight ends not named Rob Gronkowski.
Today was an example of what the Patriots have had to do to win this year. Blount had a monster day with over 200 all-purpose yards, including an 83 yard kick off return, which resulted in a huge TD for the Patriot offense, and two TDs, one for 36 yards and a second for 35. This was the second week in a row with multiple TDs for Blount.
Ridley had a fairly decent day, himself, rushing for 74 yards at just a fraction over 6 yards per attempt. Meanwhile, Vereen's biggest contribution came on 42 yards receiving from Brady, one of those for a TD.
One could make a case that the entire backfield has been the MVP for this team in 2013. Patriot nation would have formed a lynch mob for anybody who would have dared to suggest that the running game would ever play a more prominent role than Brady's air assault. Yet that is exactly what transpired today, giving the Patriots the unorthodox win and a week of rest before engaging in postseason festivities.
New England rides into the playoffs on a two-game win streak. They last missed the playoffs after their only Brady-less season, 2008; that was only the second time Brady has failed to lead the Patriots into postseason play. While the injury situation puts a certain pall over their outlook against the better teams in the AFC, they have found ways to win and put themselves in position to surprise even the best.
Bottom line: don't count out the New England Patriots- as long as Brady is throwing and these backs are running the ball, there is no reason to believe that they cannot take it all the way.