Thanks to wind gusts of up to 50 miles per hour, snow flurries, and chilly temperatures, the Patriots relied almost exclusively on their run game the last time they visited Highmark Stadium.
Against the Bills in Week 13, rookie quarterback Mac Jones threw the ball just three times, as 93.8 percent of the Patriots’ offensive plays were on the ground. The Patriots became the first team since the 1978 Saints to run the ball on at least 90 percent of their plays in a game. Jones’s three passing attempts were the fewest in franchise history.
Come Saturday night, the Patriots will be up against their divisional foes once again, this time for a wild-card matchup. The forecast, according to the National Weather Service, calls for temperatures as cold as 2 degrees. The chances of precipitation are low, only around 5 percent at 8 p.m., while the wind gusts are not expected to exceed 10 m.p.h. until 10 p.m.
The projected conditions are not as extreme as they were in Week 13, but the icy temperatures should influence the Patriots to again lean on their running backs.
Establishing the run game was already going to be a point of emphasis for the Patriots, who ranked eighth in the NFL in rushing yards (2,151), second in rushing touchdowns (24), and fourth in rushing first downs (139). New England ran the ball on 46.5 percent of its offensive plays during the regular season, the sixth-highest rate in the league.
Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, and Brandon Bolden comprise a versatile and effective running back corps, one that can help the Patriots control the pace of the game and give themselves their best chance at a win.
Just ask retired running back LeGarrette Blount, who won two Super Bowls with the Patriots.
“Statistically speaking, if you can run the ball well, those are the teams that win most of the games,” Blount said via telephone. “Bill [Belichick] is a numbers guy. He’s going to go with the stats. OK, the stats say there’s a 65 or 70 percent chance that if we run the time ball this many times or rush for this many yards, then we’re going to win.”
This season, when the Patriots rush for more than 125 yards — their average is 126.5 — they’re 8-2, with the losses being Buffalo in Week 16 and Miami in Week 18. When they rush for fewer than 125 yards, they are 2-5.
In five of New England’s seven losses, Jones attempted more than 30 passes. When he atempted 40 or more, the Patriots were 0-3.
Other factors, such as winning the turnover battle, play an important role in the outcome, too. But being able to run the football is clearly a key to victory.
“As long as they continue to run the football effectively, that’ll help [Jones] out a lot from having to throw the ball 30, 40 times,” Blount said.
Jones is heading into the postseason coming off his worst four-game stretch of the season. Over that span, he completed 59.9 percent of his passes, down from his season average of 67.6; threw six touchdown passes and five interceptions; and registered a passer rating of 79.7, down from his season average of 92.5.
Within that skid is Jones’s worst individual performance, when he completed just 43.8 percent of his passes and was picked off twice in Week 16 against the Bills.
The winter weather will only make it more difficult for Jones to execute, especially against Buffalo’s top-ranked defense. Arm strength is not one of his standout qualities.
Leaning on the run game makes even more sense in the cold because of how challenging tackling becomes. In Week 13, the Bills missed a season-high 17 tackles, surrendering 163 yards after contact. For Stevenson, 74 of his 78 rushing yards came after contact.
“Throughout your entire time in New England, one thing I don’t think another team can match up with is the toughness,” Blount said. “I think it’s a mental thing. There are games where a guy gets 18, 19 carries and has 60 yards, and then with the last five carries he’ll get to 140 because they’re tired of tackling. It’s cold. It hurts.
“They want you to get in that position in the game. They teach you where whenever you do get in that position, who is going to fold first? It’s not going to be us.”
New England’s rushing attack is in good hands, even though Harris is managing a hamstring injury and listed as questionable. He’s been on the injury report for each of the past three weeks but hasn’t missed a game.
“Everybody’s got something going on right now,” running backs coach Ivan Fears said Tuesday. “I mean, this is what, 17 games, 17 weeks? Very few guys who are playing as much as he’s playing are not out there with some kind of nagging ache or pain. You have to love the kid for fighting through it and knowing the difference between injury and just a little discomfort.”
Fears lauded Harris for his contributions. In his third NFL season, the 24-year-old Harris rushed for 929 yards and 15 touchdowns.
“He plays the game the way we need him to play, and that’s what counts to me,” Fears said. “He’s playing with everything he’s got and we’re going to need that. You’ve got to love the kid for his toughness — his physical toughness, his mental toughness, and for the kind of kid he is out there for us. He’s turning into a leader for us, which is kind of exciting.”
Fears also had plenty of praise for Bolden, who is putting up career-high numbers at age 31. Bolden logged 41 receptions for 405 yards on a catch rate of 83.7 percent. Just over half of his catches converted first downs.
“Brandon’s never really had a chance to show what he can do in the passing game because James White was always here,” Fears said. “He has truly stepped up big for us and filled a void that we needed to fill fast. But that’s what we expect from him. Brandon has always been a pretty good playmaker when you give him a chance.”
Stevenson has played a meaningful role as a rookie, after fumbling in the season opener. In just 12 games, he’s totaled 606 rushing yards and five touchdowns. His presence allows the Patriots to utilize a big-bodied, power back and to rest Harris.
Regardless of which running back is in the game, Fears sounds confident. The play distribution might not end up as skewed as it was six weeks ago, but Belichick certainly may want to consider deploying a similar strategy.
“We have to take what they give us,” Fears said. “The good news is, our guys can make a play with it. That’s the key.”