Do you believe? Do you believe the Patriots will summon their best football for the playoffs simply by virtue of being the Patriots? That it’s an ingrained, automatic response to a special occasion, no different than blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. Right now, belief outstrips proof for these Patriots.
There are some warning signs heading into Sunday’s AFC divisional playoff contest at Gillette Stadium against the Los Angeles Chargers. New England still has its brand name, but it wobbled to the finish line before finding its balance against AFC East bottom-feeders Buffalo and the New York Jets. The Patriots got their bye in a season where it’s felt like they were merely getting by, to a degree. Seeking their eighth straight AFC Championship game appearance, the Patriots are historically hard-wired to prevail in the playoffs, but they’ll be hard-pressed to do it without bucking some troubling trends.
In a year of record passing proficiency in the NFL, the Patriots’ offense has lacked its usual polish and precision in the passing game. The athletic mortality of tight end Rob Gronkowski and the inconsistency of the receiving corps forced quarterback Tom Brady, coach Bill Belichick, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to reshape the offense a bit, leaning more on the run. For the first time in five seasons, the Patriots’ rushing attack ranked higher than their passing attack. They finished fifth in the NFL in rushing yards per game (127.3), their highest ranking since 1983, and eighth in passing yards per game (266.1).
Numbers tell a story. Sometimes they tell one that obscures the truth. The Patriots’ reliance on the run is ominous. It’s usually an indication the passing game has degraded, a reflection of what’s not working, not what is.
The last three times their running attack has been ranked equal to or higher than their passing attack they’ve fallen short of the Super Bowl. In 2013, the Patriots were ninth in rushing and 10th in passing. They grounded and pounded the Indianapolis Colts before getting outgunned in the AFC Championship game in Denver with Brady throwing passes to the likes of Matthew Mulligan and Austin Collie. In 2010, they were ninth in rushing and 11th in passing after shipping out Randy Moss. That marked the last time the Patriots lost in the divisional round, as Rex Ryan’s Jets spoiled the season. In 2006, the high-water mark here for wide receiver futility, they were 12th in both rushing and passing. They miraculously beat the Chargers in San Diego and then came up short in Indianapolis in the AFC title game, dropping passes and a 21-3 lead.
It remains to be seen if the Patriots can ride the run game when it really counts — they were only 20th in rushing yards per attempt (4.3). Expect the Chargers to dare them to do so. Los Angeles, which finished ninth in rushing yards allowed per game at 105.8, snuffed out the second-ranked rushing attack in the league in its wild-card victory over the Baltimore Ravens. It did so employing seven defensive backs.
The Chargers might not use seven defensive backs as extensively on Sunday, but they’ll have five or six on the field, inviting the Patriots to prove their run game is for real and a real threat. It’s a familiar strategy against Brady and Co., one Vociferous Rex employed eight years ago when he dressed 11 defensive backs for that infamous upset.
It’s one thing to run roughshod over the Bills and Jets for 200-plus yards. It’s another to do it to the Chargers, who limited the Patriots to 3 yards per carry in the teams’ 2017 regular-season meeting at Gillette.
“We put a lot of emphasis in our run game and put a lot of time, hours into it,” said Patriots center David Andrews. “I think that’s something we always want to be confident in. We’re going to have to do a good job. They did things last year that gave us trouble, playing a lot of substitute defenses and you kind of have DBs playing linebackers, and we were a little discombobulated up front last year with that. So, we have to do a great job of everyone being on the same page, blocking the spots, and not getting flustered if there’s a DB playing at linebacker.”
The Patriots need the run game to set up their play-action game for Brady, which has been the most efficient part of their passing attack all season. Brady has completed 71.3 percent of his play-action passes versus 63.5 percent of plays that didn’t feature play action. Play action helps complementary receivers Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Phillip Dorsett shake free.
Running the ball when and where it matters on the field has been a bit of an issue for the Patriots. According to STATS LLC, the Patriots registered the fourth-highest number of red-zone rushing attempts in the league with 82, trailing New Orleans (109), the Los Angeles Rams (92), and the Ravens (91). However, they ranked 29th out of 32 teams in red-zone rushing average, netting 2.16 yards per rush inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
The red zone has been a red light district for the Patriots. Red-zone touchdown percentage was up across the league, but it remained flat for the Patriots.
Even though they ranked fourth in points per game (27.3), the Patriots were only 15th (59.6 percent) in red-zone touchdown percentage, scoring 34 touchdowns in 57 red-zone possessions. The average for playoff teams this year was 61.6 percent and the league average was 59.1. Last season, New England was fifth at 60 percent (42 touchdowns on 70 drives). The league average was 53.4 percent and the average for playoff teams was 55.4 percent.
“You know, each play is really important, but red-zone touchdowns are huge,” said Patriots left guard Joe Thuney. “I think it just comes down to group execution and everyone working together finishing every play, especially when the field is shorter to execute.”
Defensively, the Chargers were stingy in the red zone, tying for fifth in touchdown percentage allowed at 50 percent.
If the Patriots squander opportunities for touchdowns when they reach the red zone against the Chargers, it could come back to haunt them.
They know that.
“I think it’s really important. Scoring points is the game,” said wide receiver Julian Edelman. “When you get down there and you kick field goals against explosive teams like the Chargers it can hurt you. So, you know a lot of situations are going to be very important, especially this time of year, especially against an opponent like them. This will be the best team we’ve played all year. They’ve already won on the road, on the East Coast . . . So, we’d better bring our A-game.”
They’d better bring a game that forces the Chargers to respect the run. Paging Sony Michel, James White, and McDaniels’s pet project, Rex Burkhead.
The Patriots have grasped for an offensive identity all season. It’s time to prove they have one.
“This is the time of year we’ve got to go out and be at our best,” said Brady. “It all comes down to this. It’s a production-based league and regardless of what’s happened to this point, it’s about winning this game.”
If the Patriots want to make another Super Bowl run, they have to prove that their top-five running game is not just a function of passing dysfunction, that it’s by design, not by default.