Ground game key to reach­ing ti­tle game

Pawtucket Times - - SPORTS - By BREN­DAN McGAIR bm­c­[email protected]­tuck­et­

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

Photo by Louri­ann Mardo-Zayat / lmzart­

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.

Photo by Louri­ann Mardo-Zayat / lmzart­

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.

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