David Bergman/SI

Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and crew have flipped the script recently, running the ball almost 50 percent more than they throw it. Will that trend continue in the AFC title game at Denver? Doing so might change their recent playoff fortunes

By Greg A. Bedard
January 14, 2014

Despite having quarterback Tom Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the architect of the record-breaking 2007 passing attack, the Patriots rumbled their way to the AFC Championship Game with 234 rushing yards on 46 carries and six touchdowns in Saturday’s victory over the Colts.

It felt like a throwback game for the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick. They won their three Super Bowl titles in 2001, ’03 and ‘04 with a dominating defense and a physical ground game, running the ball 47.3, 45.4 and 50.6 percent of the time during the regular season. In their final two games of the regular season against the Ravens and Bills, and the divisional win over the Colts, the Patriots ran the ball on 60.6 percent of their snaps for 643 yards and 5.2 yards per carry. In the 14 games prior, the Patriots ran on just 39 percent of the snaps.

Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount has looked like Antowain Smith (’01 and ’03) and Corey Dillon (’04) rolled into one with 431 yards on 64 carries (6.7 average) and eight touchdowns in the past three games, including the regular season.

That is the way Belichick won his other two Super Bowl rings as defensive coordinator of the Giants. New York rushed 51.9 percent of the time in 1986, and 55.9 percent in 1990.

Has Belichick decided the old-school formula stands a better chance than the pass-happy one to win a title? He, of course, isn’t telling.

“We like to win,” Belichick said on Saturday night. “So, whatever we need to do to win really is good with me. Win running, win throwing, win shutting them out, win outscoring them, win in the kicking game—whatever it takes. We just have to find a way to do it this time of year. Every team we play is good. Every game is bigger than the next. We just have to try to find some way to come out on top next week. That’s really all it is.”

Will the Patriots ride the ground-and-pound approach in an effort to beat the Broncos and reach a sixth Super Bowl under Belichick? Only he and McDaniels know, obviously. There’s circumstantial evidence to suggest the Patriots, who are truly a game-by-game, opponent-specific, game-plan offense, will go more to the pass in Denver.

For one, the Broncos, who finished ninth in run defense according to FootballOutsiders.com, are the best run defense they’ve played of late. The Ravens (10th), Bills (19th) and Colts (22nd) were all rated lower. Even though losing defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson hurt the Broncos’ interior run defense, they held the Chargers’ running backs, who averaged 4.1 yards on 41 attempts in a Dec. 12 win at Denver, to a 3.4 average on 15 carries Sunday. Tackles Terrance Knighton, Malik Jackson and Sylvester Williams, end Robert Ayers and linebacker Nate Irving all played strong against the run the second time around against San Diego.

The last time the Patriots and Broncos played each other, the Pats were held to just 3.7 YPC, with Shane Vereen (pictured) and LeGarrette Blount combining for 44 rushing yards. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images) The last time the Patriots and Broncos played each other, the Pats were held to just 3.7 YPC, with Shane Vereen (pictured) and LeGarrette Blount combining for 44 rushing yards. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

The Broncos are much more susceptible to the pass (ranked 21st by Football Outsiders), and now are playing without their best pass rusher, Von Miller, and a valuable cornerback in Chris Harris. When Harris was injured against the Chargers, quarterback Philip Rivers got hot and brought San Diego back in the game. Quentin Jammer struggled as a replacement. Jammer, rookie Kayvon Webster or Tony Carter are all options that Brady could look to target.

And in each of their past three victories, the Patriots got out to big halftime leads, which are more conducive to running: 17-0 (Baltimore), 16-3 (Buffalo) and 21-7 (Indianapolis). The Patriots also played the Bills and Colts in the rain, when it’s harder to throw the ball, making the run seemed like a logical option. The forecast for Sunday in Denver: around 50 degrees and little wind, which could make both teams eager to throw the ball.

Looking for a reason why the Patriots should stay on the ground? Their three most recent playoff losses have come, in large part, because they haven’t run the ball effectively enough.

The Jets ('10), Giants ('11) and Ravens ('12) played their base defense a total of 14 of 195 total snaps (7.2 percent) when they held the Patriots to 21 (garbage-time touchdown included), 17 and 13 points, respectively. The rest was nickel or dime defense with extra defensive backs. Basically, the defenses dared the Patriots to forego their passing attack and run the ball.

The Patriots attempted to run the ball, but couldn’t do it effectively enough to pull the defenses out of playing coverage. They averaged 3.5 yards per attempt in the first half of those games. Since the defenses felt no need to drop a safety down into the box—or swap a linebacker for a defensive back—to help against the run, Brady had a tough time finding players open. He completed 60 percent of his passes in those losses and was knocked around by the pass rush, which had time to get there.

If the Patriots stick with the new-found run game, they might be able to change their recent playoff fortunes.

Colts safety LaRon Landry, who faced high-flying Patriots offenses as a member of the Jets and Redskins, thinks the renewed emphasis of the rushing attack makes the Patriots that much harder to defend.

“Oh yeah, they’ve got a great one-two punch,” Landry said. “They come with the pass, the crossing routes, the stacks, and then they hand the ball off. You flex the running backs out and cause mismatches. They had a good game plan. They keep running the ball like that, it makes it real hard on a defense.” 

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Go to Page 2 to read my Purple-Chip Report on the Divisional slate of games.

The Purple-Chip Report

Like we’ve discussed previously, postseason games in my opinion come down to how many top players each team has and whether or not they perform to that level (as opposed to the regular season, which is more about offense and depth). Performance can be affected by injury, the opponent taking a player out of the game, or just poor performance by the player. But top players need to find a way to perform in the postseason—they are the difference-makers—or else it really hurts their team.

Let’s see how each team’s purple chips, a combination of players that are blue (elite), and red (very good), fared last week.

Seahawks 23, Saints 15

The Seahawks won in spite of Russell Wilson's lackluster performance. His 67.6 rating was the fourth time in the last five games he failed to top 90. (Robert Beck/SI) The Seahawks won in spite of Russell Wilson's lackluster performance. His 67.6 rating was the fourth time in the last five games he failed to top 90. (Robert Beck/SI)

Seahawks that met expectations (5): RB Marshawn Lynch, DE Michael Bennett, CB Richard Sherman, S Earl Thomas, DT Brandon Mebane. Didn’t (2): QB Russell Wilson, DL Clinton McDonald.

Saints that met expectations (3): QB Drew Brees, DE Cameron Jordan, OT Zach Strief. Didn’t (4): TE Jimmy Graham, third-down back Darren Sproles, RG Jahri Evans, CB Keenan Lewis.

The Seahawks got away with it for another week, but unless they start making plays more consistently via the pass and Wilson plays better from the pocket, they’re going to have a tough time advancing. They can’t keep kicking field goals in the red zone. Seattle’s defense was again terrific, with Bennett arguably the best player on the field. For the Saints, Jordan’s play waned a little bit in the middle of the season, but he was lights out for the past month. Graham better be working in the offseason on his play against physical defenses, especially if he gets paid as a pending free agent. His team is counting on him to be a difference-maker in these types of games.

Patriots 43, Colts 22

Patriots players who met expectations (6): QB Tom Brady, LT Nate Solder, RB combo LeGarrette Blount/Shane Vereen, LG Logan Mankins, DE Rob Ninkovich, CB Aqib Talib. Didn’t (1): S Devon McCourty.

Colts players who met expectations: WR T.Y. Hilton, OLB Robert Mathis, DT Cory Redding. Didn’t (2): QB Andrew Luck, CB Vontae Davis.

The Patriots were just methodical in this game, which was close on the scoreboard during certain parts even though the Patriots dominated most of it thanks to impressive performances from players in the supporting cast, like Jamie Collins, Alfonzo Dennard, Dont’a Hightower and Dan Connolly. If the Patriots limited some big plays from the Colts, which were equal parts great plays Luck and Hilton and the fault of the Patriots’ defense, this really would have been a blowout. Blount carried the RB combo in this game, but Vereen really needs to get back on the same page with Brady for the next round. The Patriots will need all the offensive playmakers they can get.

49ers 23, Panthers 10

49ers who met expectations (8): WR Michael Crabtree, WR Anquan Boldin, RB Frank Gore, OLB Aldon Smith, ILB NaVorro Bowman, ILB Patrick Willis, DE Justin Smith, S Eric Reid. Didn’t (2): LT Joe Staley, TE Vernon Davis.

Panthers who met expectations (5): QB Cam Newton, DE Greg Hardy, LB Luke Kuechly, DE Charles Johnson, LB Thomas Davis. Didn’t (3): WR Steve Smith, LT Jordan Gross, LG Travelle Wharton.

A case of San Francisco just being too good, especially on defense. The Panthers don’t have enough playmakers on offense to win the day against that 49ers unless Newton is just out of this world. Steve Smith was awesome in the first half, but was blanked in the second half. Carolina isn’t at the point with its roster where that can happen in the postseason and they can expect to win.

Broncos 24, Chargers 17

Broncos who met expectations (6): QB Peyton Manning, RG Louis Vazquez, WR Demaryius Thomas, DT Terrance Knighton, DT Malik Jackson, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Didn’t (3): WR Eric Decker, WR Wes Welker, TE Julius Thomas.

Chargers who met expectations (3): QB Philip Rivers, third-down RB Danny Woodhead, S Eric Weddle. Didn’t (2): TE Antonio Gates, OT King Dunlap.

San Diego was at such a talent disadvantage in this one that it needed almost a perfect performance to win, and it didn’t come close to that. The only reason this was close in the end was because of the Broncos’ self-inflicted wounds. Not sure Denver can have the same type of performance and beat the Patriots. Decker, Welker and Julius Thomas all need to be more consistent or the Broncos will have a tough time moving the ball.


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