FOXBOROUGH — If the Patriots win three playoff games over a 23-day span, starting with Saturday’s AFC divisional-round contest against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium, they will make NFL history in the process.
Not by winning back-to-back Super Bowls. Seven franchises have done that, the Patriots being the most recent, in the 2003-04 seasons.
Here’s the history: None of the 49 Super Bowl champions finished with a per-game rushing average as low as the Patriots this season. That 87.8 yards per game also factors in the two players — LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis, now injured — who had the most rushing yards. When the Patriots play Saturday, the top available rusher will be Brandon Bolden, who had 207 yards in the regular season and averaged just 3.3 yards on 63 carries.
True, it’s a passing league, and the Patriots own the league’s fifth-best passing offense. Plus, they’re expected to get Julian Edelman back, which should provide a game-changing jolt to an offense that averaged 418.6 yards and 33.6 points with Edelman (9-0 record), and 317.5 yards and 23.1 points without him (3-4).
However, with only a few exceptions, teams that go on to win the Super Bowl showed the ability to effectively run the football, if that was required. Are these Patriots, with the players currently available, capable of that?
“The goal is to be better than what we were in the regular season. We’re just going to go with what we’ve got, do the best we can, and work for a better outcome,” said Bolden. “I’ve got all the faith in the world in my teammates, especially the guys up front. If we’ve got to get stuff done, we lean on them anyway. It starts with them, and it’s going to end with them.”
The Patriots weren’t the worst rushing team in the NFL this season. They ranked 30th, the lowest since they were 28th in 1986, when the NFL only had 28 teams. This season’s 87.8-yard average was the lowest for the Patriots since 2000, Bill Belichick’s first year as head coach. That team averaged 86.9 yards per game, and finished 5-11.
If Tom Brady shows no limitations from the ankle injury he suffered in the regular-season finale, and if Edelman and tackle Sebastian Vollmer can return and spark a team that went 2-4 after a 10-0 start, does it really matter how the Patriots move the ball? Belichick, Brady, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels talk occasionally about having a balanced run/pass offense, but they had a game this season where they handed the ball off just five times and threw it 54. That came in a 30-23 win over the Jets on Oct. 25, when the Patriots were held to a season-low 16 rushing yards. They won the game, anyway.
“However you have to move the football, you do it. Whatever we have to do to get points on the board to win the game, that’s what we’re going to try to do,” said James White, who rushed for 56 yards on 22 carries this season, and was more valuable as a pass-catching back, with 40 receptions for 410 yards. “As long as you win the game, that’s all that matters. Whatever formula you need to do that, go out there and come up with it, execute it.”
In the regular season, the Patriots had 383 rushing attempts and 629 pass attempts. When you include the 38 times Brady was sacked, it leaves a run/pass percentage of 36/64. To put that into context, the Patriots ran it 40 percent of the time last season, when they won Super Bowl XLIX, and ranked 18th in rushing offense at 107.9 yards per game.
“I think we always want to be balanced with what we do,” Brady said. “Sometimes it gets out of proportion, pass-wise to run-wise and vice versa. We’re going to have to do both of those things well in a couple weeks, regardless of who we play. We are going to have to run it well and throw it well.”
Without Blount (703 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per carry) and Lewis (234, 4.8), the Patriots have struggled to get anything going on the ground. In the three games where neither Blount nor Lewis was available, the Patriots rushed for 93 yards on 26 carries in a win over Tennessee, 63 yards on 22 carries in a loss to the Jets, and 70 yards on 27 carries in the loss to the Dolphins. Bolden (3.3), White (2.5), and recent addition Steven Jackson (2.4) all average fewer than 3½ yards per carry.
Still confident that the Patriots can run the ball?
“We’re confident. We’re confident in the guys up front. We’ll have to trust one another, make the right reads, make the right blocks, and we’ll be fine,” White said. “Everybody needs to be on the same page. If we’re all on the same page, then we can run the football, throw the football, do whatever we have to do to win the game.”
Super Bowl winners can run the football. Most of them, at least. Last year’s Patriots ran for 14, 177, and 57 yards in three playoff victories, relying much more heavily on the pass, with great success.
Twenty-five of the first 28 Super Bowl winners averaged at least 120 rushing yards per game. Even though the game played now is built more on the pass, Super Bowl champions are still running the ball well. Starting with the Patriots’ first title in the 2001 season, 12 of the 14 Super Bowl winners averaged at least 100 rushing yards per game. The 2013 Seahawks had the fourth-best rushing offense at 136.7 yards; the 2005 Steelers averaged 138.9, while the 2004 Patriots were the seventh-best rushing offense in the league at 133.4 yards.
The exceptions were the 2002 Buccaneers (97.3 rushing average) and the 2011 Giants, who ranked last in the league at 89.1 rushing yards per game. That’s still more than the Patriots this season, and they enter the playoffs without the two backs primarily responsible for that number.
Ominous sign, or a nonfactor as the Patriots get set to begin their quest for a fifth Super Bowl title in 15 years?
“I think two things matter: Converting third downs, and protecting the football,” Jackson said. “However you do that is how you do it. But those two things allow you to be in a good position.”
At 6 feet 2 inches and 240 pounds, Jackson is the biggest Patriots back, and with more than 11,400 career rushing yards, is accustomed to being on teams that could move the ball on the ground.
Is he confident this team can run the ball?
“Very confident,” Jackson said. “I wouldn’t have taken the challenge on if we couldn’t.”