Amid the hubbub of Spygate, the hate-hate relationship with Eric Mangini and the run to a perfect season, the Patriots found something in the sleet and rain at Gillette Stadium on Sunday that will be key to their short-term future: a running game. Second-year back Laurence Maroney, who has had a checkered start in New England, rushed a career-high 26 times—13 in each half—for 104 yards, and on nine of his team's 10 offensive series he had at least two rushing attempts. Given that the Pats close their season in the cold, with games in Foxborough (versus Miami) and New Jersey (versus the Giants), and their first two postseason games would be on January weekends at home, Maroney (right) could be moving into a costarring role with Tom Brady. "When I saw our game plan I knew I'd be carrying it a lot," Maroney said on Sunday night. "I think I showed people they don't have to worry about our running game."
The debate in New England has been whether Maroney, the 21st pick in the 2006 draft, is tough and durable enough to carry the Patriots in a playoff game. He missed three games this season with a nagging groin injury, and before Sunday he'd averaged only 12.5 rushing attempts in 24 NFL appearances. At the same time, Joseph Addai, drafted nine spots after Maroney, has been a workhorse for the Colts. The two are almost identical in size, about 5'11" and 215 pounds, but Addai can pound it up the gut and take it outside, while Maroney clearly prefers to make people miss. Last Sunday, though, Maroney ran against type—20 of his 26 carries went between the tackles. That's the kind of gritty production New England will need if it faces a physical defense such as Jacksonville's or Pittsburgh's in the playoffs. Maroney doesn't think his teammates question his toughness. "It's not like I'm dancing," he said. "If I can get around you without running you over or running through you, that's just more hits I don't have to take."
New England, in ideal conditions, would be about a 65% pass--35% run team, relying on Brady's head and arm to win games. But January football in the Northeast is often more about willpower than about precision passing. Maroney will be put to that test.