DENVER — Since dropping a Week 15 game at Miami, the Patriots had strung together three straight victories mostly on the strength of their ground attack, which had gained the most rushing yards in team history over any three-game span since 1983.
Facing the Broncos on Sunday for the right to go to Super Bowl XLVIII, the Patriots saw any momentum they had built the past month running the football come to a crashing halt. So, too, their dreams of winning a fourth Lombardi Trophy, at least for now.
An offense that had averaged more than 39 points over the last three games and featured more run plays than pass plays in each one looked nothing like that in Sunday’s AFC Championship game. The Patriots could generate just 64 yards on the ground against Denver in the 26-16 loss. It was a far cry from what had been New England’s new norm, and definitely played a significant role in the Broncos advancing.
“They just played better than we did today, simple as that,” said Shane Vereen. “I’m not going to hide behind anything else. They had a better day.”
Vereen (four carries, 34 yards) led the Patriots in rushing, a postgame fact that wouldn’t have been a good sign if known before the game. Not with the way LeGarrette Blount had been running the ball. Blount, who had 189 rushing yards in the regular-season finale, then went for 166 in the playoffs against the Colts, was held to 6 yards on only five carries. All came in the first half.
After averaging 41 rushing attempts in the last three games (compared to just 25 passes), the Patriots ran it only 16 times on Sunday, not close to what they had in mind. Tom Brady threw it 38 times.
“It was definitely part of the game plan to establish the run,” Vereen said. “We wanted to establish the run, we wanted to establish the pass, we wanted to score points. We wanted to do a lot of different things that their defense wasn’t allowing us to do.”
Part of the Patriots’ focus on running the ball late in the season was because of the elements; it rained against both Buffalo and Indianapolis. Similar conditions might have brought a similar game plan, but with the weather ideal in Denver — 63 degrees, little wind — the day was conducive to passing.
The Broncos finished the regular season tied for seventh in the league against the run, and expected to have success slowing down the Patriots, even though others recently had not.
“We’ve been pretty good against the run all year, we really have,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “We knew they were very good at both [run and pass], they’ve proven worthy. I think our guys responded.”
They certainly bottled up Blount. His carries went for 0, 1, 3, 2, and 0 yards, and he was never able to find the kind of holes that the offensive line had been able to open for him the past month or so.
Did Blount, with all his recent success, feel like a marked man?
Was he surprised the Broncos were able to have so much success stopping the run?
The Patriots’ longest run of the game went for 11 yards, by Vereen. One week after scoring six rushing touchdowns, the only scoring run against the Broncos came from Brady, who went in from 5 yards with 3:07 left to make it 26-16. Attempting a 2-point conversion to make it a one-possession game, the Patriots chose to run again, but Vereen was stopped short.
With so much confidence running the football heading in, it summed up the Patriots’ feeble rushing day.
“There were plays out there that we didn’t make,” Blount said. “It’s disappointing. We had big expectations. They stopped us.”
Said Vereen: “They just played their game. They’re a good defense, they deserve to be in this spot, they deserve to win, they earned it. They beat us fair and square.”