FOXBOROUGH — Bill Belichick gave the quintessential Belichick answer Saturday night when I asked him after the Patriots’ 43-22 beatdown of the Colts if the plan was to go heavy with the running game. The steady downpour and wind gusts certainly made running the football the more palatable game plan, and the Patriots rushed a season-high 46 times against the Colts.
“The plan is to always move the ball and score points,” Belichick replied. “Whatever is the best way to do that, that’s what we’re going to do.”
He’s being a bit of a wiseacre, but he’s right, of course. And if there’s one thing we have learned during the Patriots’ current three-game winning streak, it’s that the running game is now by far the best way for the team to move the ball and score points.
The Patriots ran for 142 yards in the 41-7 win over Baltimore in Week 16 while passing for 158 yards. They rushed for 267 and passed for 115 in the 34-20 win over Buffalo. And they rushed for 234 yards while passing for 198 in the playoff win Saturday, setting a franchise record with six rushing touchdowns.
The Patriots have mostly been a pass-first team since 2007, with Tom Brady setting the season touchdown record (which has since been broken) and slinging the ball to his All-Pro cast of receivers, including Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Rob Gronkowski.
But all three of those players are gone now, and the Patriots haven’t exactly replaced them with all-stars. The strength of this team, it has become abundantly clear, is the three-headed monster at running back of LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley, and Shane Vereen, the offensive line opening holes in front of them, tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan setting the edge, and fullback James Develin paving the way.
Forget Brady flinging the ball 50 times a game. The Patriots are at their best when they ground-and-pound their opponents into submission. They held the ball for exactly 35 minutes on Saturday, keeping the ball away from Andrew Luck and wearing out the Colts’ defense.
The running game is ever-important in January, when the weather is bad and you need to move the ball efficiently. And it helps open up the field for Brady, who hit a wide-open Danny Amendola for 53 yards on a play-action pass.
Blount and Ridley often alternate series throughout the game, giving the Patriots fresh legs at running back in the fourth quarter.
“Me, personally, I believe our team is the best when we’re running the ball,” left guard Logan Mankins said. “Any time you get that many rushing attempts you feel like you’re controlling the line of scrimmage.”
It makes sense, of course, that the Patriots would rely on the running game this year. They have tough, scrappy receivers in Julian Edelman and Amendola, but the rest of the position is essentially a nonfactor. Rookie Aaron Dobson is hurt once again and didn’t play Saturday, and fellow rookie Kenbrell Thompkins had zero catches in three targets.
“You don’t want to make any excuses, but there were a bunch of new guys coming in at different positions,” Hoomanawanui said. “Knew we kind of had the staple of our team back there in the backfield, and then you add LG to it, the numbers speak for themselves. Keep rolling with them, and we’ll keep blocking for them.”
Blount was the story of the night, but Ridley deserves some credit, too. The four fumbles and benching in Houston were his defining moments this season, but he churned out 52 tough yards on Saturday, plus two short-yardage touchdowns and a 2-point conversion rush.
Ridley entered the season as the potential breakout star after rushing for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns last year.
But he is now in more of a supporting role thanks to a fumbling problem and the surprise emergence of Blount, acquired from Tampa Bay in the offseason for Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick.
Blount didn’t get a ton of action to start the season, but he has exploded onto the scene in recent weeks. He had 76 yards rushing and two touchdowns against Baltimore, 189 yards rushing and two touchdowns against Buffalo, and 166 yards rushing and four touchdowns Saturday against the Colts, churning out tough yards up the middle until finally breaking the Colts’ back with a 73-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter to seal the win.
He went from unwanted in Tampa Bay — he had just 41 carries for 151 yards in 13 games last year — to the Patriots’ bell cow back, running over and away from defenses en route to 11 rushing touchdowns in 17 games this season. His 24 carries on Saturday tied the 24 he had in Week 17 against Buffalo as his season high.
And Blount proved his versatility against the Colts. His first three touchdown runs came from 2 yards out, showing an impressive ability to reach the end zone when everyone in the building knew he’d get the ball. And the 73-yard touchdown run proved that he’s not just a short-yardage back.
Blount was the star of the postgame scene, holding court with celebrity guest Charles Barkley before talking to dozens of reporters. He modestly credited the offensive line for his big run.
“I think I might’ve got clipped by one guy that stuck his arm out, and the rest is history. It couldn’t have been blocked any better,” Blount said. “As long as that offensive line isn’t tired, I’m not going to get tired. If they’re going to go out there and bang, I’m going to bang with them.”
I asked Hoomanawanui, what has gotten into Blount in recent weeks?
“Whatever it is, I need to check it out,” he quipped. “He’s been great, obviously. Really, the whole backfield throughout the whole season has really been key for us. One of the big reasons we’re moving on.”