Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff
Even those among us whose perspective has gone askew as they dwell on what Jimmy Garoppolo might do rather than savoring what Tom Brady and the Patriots have done again have not forgotten the truth:
Brady is, without question, the most important player through the ebbs and flows of the Patriots’ near two-decade dynasty. That, I hope, is as obvious as James Harrison’s biceps. Brady is on a very short list of the most important players in NFL history. He is a one-man list of its greatest winners.
But as the Patriots begin their bye week in their quest for a downright ridiculous eighth trip to the Super Bowl and a sixth Lombardi Trophy in the Bill Belichick/Brady era, a related question began rattling around in my mind:
Who has been the Patriots’ second-most important offensive player during this 17-season stretch? Beyond that, who is it right now?
Historically, there’s no one name that has dominated alongside Brady for extraordinarily prolonged stretches. Some seasons, it’s a wide receiver: In the slot, there was Troy Brown, then Wes Welker, then Julian Edelman. Randy Moss was unstoppable in 2007. Reliable ol’ Deion Branch was a Super Bowl MVP along the way.
Corey Dillon was a beast of a ball carrier in 2004. Rob Gronkowski is a beast, period. And does Adam Vinatieri count as an offensive player? Those banners don’t hang at Gillette Stadium without the clutch work of his trusty right foot.
Right now, of course, it remains Gronkowski, who delivered hellacious back-t0-back early December performances against the Bills and Steelers, when he totaled 18 catches for 315 yards. He remains the greatest passing-game weapon in the NFL.
Don’t be fooled by his zero-catch, zero-target regular-season finale against the Jets. That was designed to prevent further bruises and other ailments before he is unleashed on whomever the Patriots’ next opponent happens to be. He could have dropped an effortless 6 catches for 90 yards on the Jets if he wanted.
But there is another Patriots offensive player who is going to be essential if their dreams of back-to-back championships (and three in four seasons) are to be fulfilled. And I’m not sure anyone saw this coming in September, when dazzling Dion Lewis was practically an afterthought in the game plan.
Lewis, who ran a career-high 26 times for 93 yards and a touchdown in Sunday’s win over the Jets, has emerged as an extraordinarily important contributor to the Patriots offense, especially in the recent absence of fellow running backs James White and Rex Burkhead.
While White, who should have been the MVP of Super Bowl LI, and Burkhead (eight touchdowns in his first season as a Patriot) are skilled and versatile backs who will be relied-upon necessities this postseason provided they’re in good health, it’s a blessing that Lewis’s workload has increased.
Perhaps it’s because of his unheralded arrival with the Patriots (he was signed to a futures contract three years ago this month after injuries stunted his career with the Eagles), but sometimes the reminder is required of just how complete and dynamic he is as a three-down running back. Nationally, anyway, he’s continually underestimated for what he really is.
He’s small but tough, rarely stopped by the first would-be tackler on the scene. And he has those whoa-did-you-see-that? video-game moves that we haven’t seen around here since Bill Parcells was warning us not to put Curtis Martin in Canton just yet.
It is pure fun to watch him at his best. He wasn’t this explosive last season as he recovered from a knee injury that abbreviated his 2015 season, his first in New England. White seized many of his touches and stole the show in the Super Bowl. But after spare usage earlier this season (12 carries for 46 yards through the first four weeks), Lewis’s jitterbug explosiveness gradually returned, and so did his opportunities. Over the season’s final six weeks, he carried the football 98 times for 510 yards and three rushing touchdowns. That’s a 1,360-yard pace extrapolated over 16 games.
He has the moves of a superstar. Lately he has performed like one. Even if White and Burkhead return in good form, the Patriots need Lewis to be this same dynamic performer in the postseason. Brady hasn’t been as sharp as usual lately, and his receiving corps isn’t the most trustworthy he has had. A reliable running game would be a great aid to the Patriots quarterback. But it’s not something he has always had at his disposal in the postseason. Especially the threat of one back thriving in a bell-cow ball carrier role.
In Brady’s 34 playoff starts – and isn’t that crazy that he’s played more than two full seasons in the postseason alone? -- Patriots running backs have provided just six individual 100-yard rushing performances, per pro-football-reference.com:
■ LeGarrette Blount: 24 carries, 166 yards, 4 touchdowns in the Patriots’ 43-22 divisional round victory over the Colts on January 11, 2014.
■ Blount: 30 carries, 148 yards, 3 touchdowns in a 45-7 AFC Championship Game win over the Colts on January 18, 2015.
■ Corey Dillon: 23 carries, 144 yards, no touchdowns in a 20-3 divisional round win over the Colts on January 16, 2005.
■ Laurence Maroney: 25 carries, 122 yards, 1 touchdown in a 21-12 AFC Championship win over the Chargers on January 20, 2008.
■ Maroney: 22 carries for 122 yards, 1 touchdown in a 32-20 divisional round victory over the Jaguars on January 12, 2008.
■ Antowain Smith: 22 carries, 100 yards, no touchdowns in a 24-14 AFC Championship victory over the Colts on January 18, 2004.
A couple of notes:
The top three and four of the six occurred against the Colts, which seems about right. Andrew Luck and especially Peyton Manning always had to have their offensive weapons at the expense of the defense. That philosophy is how Phillip Dorsett ends up being a first-round pick.
You forgot the disappointing Maroney stacked up back-to-back 122 yard games en route to the first Super Bowl showdown with the Giants, didn’t you? Had he been able to do something similar in the Patriots’ 17-14 loss in Super Bowl XLII, they would have gone 19-0. But he managed just 36 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.
Smith, who always seemed to get 2 ½ yards on third-and-2, gets credit primarily for his contributions (1,157 yards, 12 touchdowns) during the Patriots run to the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory in 2001. But he was also somewhere between dependable and essential in the 2003 postseason, when he ran for 253 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Patriots’ three wins.
I have little doubt Lewis can be the seventh single-game 100-yard rusher (and fourth back to achieve it) in Brady’s postseason career. As he’s proven as this season evolves, all he needs is a chance, the football, and just the slightest of openings.
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