Ground game key to reaching title game
FOXBORO – Tom Brady was the leading rusher the last time the New England Patriots took part in an AFC Championship Game that wasn’t held at friendly Gillette Stadium
The year was 2016 and Brady finished with a mere 13 yards – 11 coming on one attempt – in a 20-18 loss at Denver. Back then, New England’s backfield was a definite sore spot, leaving Bill Belichick little choice but to rely on over-the-hill types such as Steven Jackson. With a trip to Super Bowl 50 at stake, the Patriots bowed out after collectively rushing for just 44 yards on 17 carries.
Based on the ground-churning efforts turned in by rookie Sony Michel on Sunday afternoon, New England’s rushing game appears to be peaking at the right time. The Lamar Hunt Trophy is scheduled to be presented in Kansas City next weekend. The Patriots are heading to Arrowhead Stadium after downing the Los Angeles Chargers, 41-28, before a crowd that strung together a couple of impressive renditions of “Beat LA!” despite the thermometer reading 26 degrees at kickoff.
When the Patriots depart for the state of Missouri later this week, a legitimate ground game will be included in the luggage.
There’s no reason to believe that Brady will lead New England in rushing like he did three years ago when the conference title was decided in the Denver altitude. The Pats will be armed with a ground-and-pound component that could prove to be the great equalizer when it comes to keeping Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City’s high-flying offense stationed on the sidelines.
Against Los Angeles, the Patriots held the ball for 28 minutes, 49 seconds compared to 16:11 for their opponent through three quarters. Facing a Chargers team that likes to utilize up to seven defensive backs, New England countered with a clock-killing, smash-mouth approach that helped the home team win the all-important time-of-possession battle.
“The way they use their defensive backs, it can be a real challenge,” said Rex Burkhead, who also rushed for a score. “We knew we had to play physical right from the get-go and make sure we execute.”
In his first NFL playoff game, Michel hammered his way into the end zone three times before halftime and helped anchor a ground attack that gashed the Chargers for 4.6 yards per rush attempt (155 yards on 34 carries). On a day that saw the Patriots punch their ticket to the franchise’s eight-straight AFC title contest, it was clear that Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels were looking in Michel’s direction. The rookie from the Univer- sity of Georgia responded to the task of carrying the load by producing 129 yards on 24 carries.
“Great day, great first playoff game,” said Burkhead about Michel. “As a group, we love seeing each other do well. He ran hard, he ran downhill, and he ran physical. I was very excited for him.”
For those wearing Patriot uniforms who saw plenty of Michel’s backside, it was enjoyable to see him spring to daylight as often as he did on his way to posting his fifth 100-yard game of the season.
“Sony is a great player and he played very well today,” said Patriots center (and fellow Georgia product) David Andrews.
Added guard Joe Tunney, “He ran so hard. It was fun to watch.”
Michel opened his big day on a concerning note; he had minus-2 yards next to his name after his first two carries. It wasn’t until after the Chargers tied the game at 7 in the first quarter when he truly got going.
On New England’s second drive, Michel ran off right tackle for a 14-yard touchdown that ultimately put the Patriots up for good. The same drive also featured a 12-yard rush as it was clear New England was looking to make Los Angeles pay for leaving the interior relatively unguarded.
“It’s all about trust and knowing that coach will call the best play,” said Michel when asked about the Patriots’ slow start in running department.
On the 18th running play of the game, Michel delivered a punishing blow in the form of a 40-yard run. It was his longest play from scrimmage this season and helped the Patriots stand on the threshold of extending their 21-7 lead.
“That was caused by all the great blocking that was happening. I just had to be patient,” said Michel. “The hole was wide open. Anybody could have run through it.”
Gronkowski chipped in with a nice block when Burkhead ran six yards for a score that had the Patriots rolling at 28-7. The All-Pro tight end finished with just one catch but was very active in creating holes that Michel and his fellow running backs could exploit.
“The run game is huge. I believe it’s a huge asset and helps to open up the receivers and the running backs in the passing game,” said Gronkowski. “Just to be able to run the ball and be able to block … I’ve never taken it for granted. I’ve always loved run-blocking. I love to do the balance of both, but whatever I get asked to do, whatever coaches want me to do, I’m down.”
Michel capped off his touchdown barrage with a five-yard score that pinned the Chargers in a 35-7 hole with 1:47 left in the first half. By halftime, he was being mentioned in the same breath as Curtis Martin and LeGarrette Blount as New England players to score three rushing touchdowns in the same playoff game.
“That’s the kind of football we want to play,” said Michel after the Patriots held the ball for 20:11 during the first half, the result of rushing for 114 yards.
Going back in the vault even further, Shane Vereen was New England’s clubhouse leader on the ground when the Pats dropped the 2013 AFC title game in Denver. He managed just 34 yards in a game that ended with the Broncos winning, 26-16.
Given the presence of a clear-cut No. 1 rushing option in Michel and a solid complement in Burkhead, who against the Chargers had 12 yards on four attempts, the Patriots should feel confident about their running abilities as they prepare to hit the road for a game that will determine one-half of this year’s Super Bowl field.
“We’ve got some great backs. If we give them a chance, they’ll make plays,” said Andrews.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03
Thanks to an improved running game, the Patriots didn’t rely on tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) and quarterback Tom Brady (12) to carry the team Sunday vs. the Chargers.
Sony Michel (26) and the Patriots’ running game took pressure off of Tom Brady in Sunday’s 41-28 victory over the Chargers to send New England back to the AFC title game.