HOUSTON (AP) When you play for the Patriots, being selfish is not an option.
And no other group may be a greater example of that this season than the trio of running backs that New England will lean on in its Super Bowl matchup with the Atlanta Falcons.
The Patriots struggled to run the ball a year ago after Dion Lewis was lost late in the season to a torn left ACL and LeGarrette Blount to a hip injury.
James White and Brandon Bolden did their best to pick up the slack without them, but New England managed just 44 yards in its AFC championship game loss to Denver.
A year later, those health issues have all but evaporated. And it's helped produce one of the most dependable groups of running backs the Patriots have had in years.
Blount led the NFL with 18 touchdowns and a career-high 1,161 yards during the regular season. White has been among the Patriots' most-improved players after he finished with career highs in receptions (60), receiving yards (551) and receiving touchdowns (five).
And after spending the first half of the season on injured reserve rehabbing from knee surgery, Lewis became the first player in NFL postseason history to have a rushing touchdown, receiving touchdown and a kick returned for a touchdown in New England's divisional-round win over Houston.
''We all bring something different,'' Lewis said. ''We all have different roles and we all understand our roles and we do it to the best of our abilities. We are really close and we compete and we help each other. There is nothing more you can ask out of a group of guys.''
Of the Patriots' three primary backs, only Lewis will be playing in his first Super Bowl. Blount and White are in search of their second rings in New England, having won their first in 2015.
Blount rejoined the Patriots in 2014 after an ugly departure from Pittsburgh, and played in the final eight games that season in New England, scoring three times in its AFC championship game win over Indianapolis.
White is looking forward to being on the field for the first time in a Super Bowl after being inactive for the win over the Seahawks two years ago.
He said what has gone into his success this season is simply doing what the coaches ask him to do.
''I just know my role,'' White said. ''When I step on the football field, I just try to do the right thing to help this team win. Everybody on this team knows their role.''
Blount has dealt with illness at times during this playoff run, and has just one touchdown on 24 carries through the first two games.
Though he has lots of respect for Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman's ability to be a game-changer in the Falcons' offense, Blount said he's confident he'll be ready to do the same Sunday when he's called upon.
''I believe (Freeman is) one of the best running backs in the league,'' Blount said. ''But at the end of the day I'm going to go with myself. I can't never say nobody's better than me.''
While Blount has been New England's most productive back this season, one thing he has also tried to do is build a deeper camaraderie with Lewis and White.
Along with being his teammates' biggest cheerleaders, Blount has been the ringleader off the field as well; organizing activities outside of the locker room that many times have very little to do with football.
One example was the trio communicating on a running back-only group text while Lewis was still rehabbing from his injury.
Other times they've attended concerts together or just shared a meal - any and everything to keep the dialogue between the three going.
It's also why Lewis said none of them hesitate to use a certain word when describing what has helped them bond this season: Love.
''We are close and we love each other,'' he said. ''You go to work and you love the people you want to be around and that is definitely the case with us. We are so close.''
Lewis said he believes those experiences will pay off on Sunday - no matter whose number is called.
''Being here on this team is a close team, it is a family. We want to win and we know that whoever gives us the best chance to win is going to be out there. We know that so we just accept our roles and work together and root hard for other guys too.''
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