ON THEIR way to winning two of the past three Super Bowls, the Patriots employed an offense that was more efficient than dominant, mixing a vanilla running game with multiple short-pass packages. The lack of production on the ground was glaring in 2003, when New England ranked 27th in the league. So during the off-season the team went shopping for an upgrade at running back, someone who could take pressure off quarterback Tom Brady and be a workhorse when the weather turned foul in December and January.
No available back intrigued the Patriots like the Bengals' Corey Dillon, who at 225 pounds was a power runner who could also outrun defensive backs. After speaking with many of his Cincinnati and former college coaches and teammates about him--Dillon had become contentious during seven seasons with the Bengals--New England coach Bill Belichick and general manager Scott Pioli deemed the man who had rushed for more than 1,000 yards in a season six times a risk worth taking. They got him in exchange for a second-round pick in last April's draft.
As it turned out, there was no risk at all. In 15 games Dillon rushed for 1,635 yards, a franchise record, and 12 touchdowns, both career highs. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry for an offense that ranked third in the league in rushing. Dillon also helped the Patriots flip their pass-heavy offensive script: They ran on 53% of their 1,009 snaps this season, compared to 47% of 1,010 snaps in 2003.
Known for his bruising running style and durability, Dillon missed only a Halloween loss in Pittsburgh, because of a thigh injury. And, at 30, he showed that he hasn't lost a step. "Like all great backs, Corey is a load if he breaks that first tackle," says new 49ers coach Mike Nolan, formerly the Ravens' defensive coordinator. "When he hits the secondary, most D-backs are unable to, or uninterested in, tackling him."
With defenses having to work to contain a back of Dillon's caliber, the Patriots' deep passing game opened up. During the season Brady averaged 7.79 yards per pass attempt, almost one yard better than his previous season high. He completed 44 passes that went for more than 20 yards and 10 that went longer than 50 yards, threw for 3,692 yards and had a 92.6 passer rating--all career bests.
Late in the season Dillon, who had a career-high 345 carries, delivered. Over the last five games he averaged 109 rushing yards. Then, in the AFC divisional playoff against the Colts in snowy Gillette Stadium, he ran for 144 yards in helping New England control the ball for 37:21 in a 20--3 win. "Corey gave New England an attitude, especially in the fourth quarter," Nolan says. "With Corey back there, you hit the last 15 minutes and [defenders] think, Enough's enough."
Perhaps most important, Dillon is the "happiest he's ever been," says his agent, Steve Feldman. Indeed, soon after the Patriots had advanced to the Super Bowl with a 41--27 win over Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game, Dillon called Feldman and delivered this message: "I never want to play anywhere else, ever again." --Josh Elliott
WHEN NEW ENGLAND HAS THE BALL: KEY MATCHUPS
Patriots LT Matt Light and RT Brandon Gorin versus Eagles DEs Jevon Kearse and Derrick Burgess
Kearse and Burgess are speed rushers, and in the NFC title game they distinguished themselves by putting heat on Michael Vick and by dropping into a spy position at times. They won't have to worry about spying Tom Brady, but they won't get much blitz help, either, because Brady gets to his hot reads too quickly. Light and Gorin can be beaten with speed, which could force the Pats to max-protect. That would mean fewer receivers running routes, giving the edge to Philly's defense.
Patriots QB Tom Brady versus Eagles secondary
The NFL's best money passer goes against the finest secondary in the league. Twice in the AFC title game when he sent only two receivers downfield, Brady looked off Steelers DBs and then connected on deep passes. But such deception won't work against safeties Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis and corners Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown. Brady will see some blitzing, but only as a changeup. My guess is that New England will use a short passing game to set up a heavy dose of running back Corey Dillon--or vice versa.
Patriots RB Corey Dillon versus Eagles MLB Jeremiah Trotter
Trotter has injected a measure of toughness into a run defense that was anemic before he became a starter, on Nov. 15. Dillon has added punch to a ground game that was merely an annoyance to defenses in past years. He's a good cutback and misdirection runner, which could bother Trotter if he has to devote too much effort to getting off blocks. --P.Z.