FOXBOROUGH — The NFL season has come to an end for the 7-9 Patriots, who finished the year with a losing record and without a playoff berth for the first time in over a decade.
Although New England’s 28-14 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday afternoon might offer little other than a morale boost, multiple Patriots who will be under contract next season got a chance to show why they should be considered pieces for the future.
One was running back Sony Michel, who rushed for 76 yards on a season-high 16 carries, and caught three passes for 60 yards and the first receiving touchdown of his career, a 31-yarder in the fourth quarter. With second-year stud Damien Harris (ankle) sidelined for New England’s final three games, Michel rebounded from an underwhelming start to the season, emerging as a viable backfield threat.
“Unfortunately, this season has had ups and downs for this team and for myself,” Michel said Sunday. “At the end of the day, you got to keep going, keep grinding, and keep pushing forward.”
After starting New England’s first three games of the season, Michel missed seven straight games while on injured reserve with a quad injury. He returned in Week 12 to a crowded backfield, competing with Harris, Rex Burkhead, and James White, and logged just one offensive snap against the Arizona Cardinals.
But season-ending injuries to Burkhead and Harris re-opened the door — and Michel capitalized. The past three games have represented one of his best stretches, showcasing his burst and ability to gain extra yardage. During that span, Michel has averaged 6.1 yards per carry, up from last season’s average of 3.7 yards, and rushed for 219 yards.
“For me, it’s about taking advantage of the opportunities given,” he said. “That’s all I’m trying to do, is take advantage, do my job and do it well.”
Did Michel feel as though he needed to make a statement after Harris’s emergence?
“For me, it’s about performing, doing my job and doing my job to the best of my ability,” he said. “Damien’s a great player, and he’s going to continue to run the ball well. It’s my job to try to do my best to try and run the ball well also.”
Michel has also flashed more promise as a pass-catcher an aspect of his game coach Bill Belichick said became more of a focus following his rookie year.
“He works hard at the passing game,” Belichick said Sunday. “Fortunately, we were able to get the ball out to him in space a couple times. Sometimes that’s a lot easier than having to block a lot of guys, get through the line of scrimmage. Passes that give the backs the ball with an opportunity to run with it, those are good opportunities.”
The running back room has been one of the team’s few bright spots this season, and the Patriots will have a couple of decisions to make next year. Both Harris and Michel are under contract, with Rex Burkhead and James White set to become free agents. Undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor is also in the mix to return as an exclusive rights free agent, meaning he must sign with the Patriots if the team offers him a contract.
Should the team move on from Burkhead and/or White, Michel’s recent performances have made a case that he’ll be able to contribute if healthy. Health has always been a concern for the 2018 first-round pick, who started training camp the past two years on the physically unable to perform list as a result of offseason procedures.
But Michel sounded motivated to carry this momentum into his offseason training. He said his goals will be to “keep going” and “keep grinding.”
“It’s about growth,” Michel said. “Football is a great representation of life. It’s not always going to be smooth sailing. You got to learn how to adjust, how to deal with adversity.”
Now, what does Belichick think about the options at running back moving forward? Some time is probably going to pass before we find out.
“I don’t really have anything to say about next year,” Belichick said. “We just got finished with the game. We put what we had into the game. I’m not going to talk about anything beyond today because I’m not prepared to talk about it.”
More Patriots coverage
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Nicole Yang can be reached at email@example.com.