When the New England Patriots opened their AFC divisional round game against the Kansas City Chiefs with 14 consecutive passing plays, it might have been easy to forget that the franchise had running backs on its active roster.
Per NFL Research, Patriots opened w/14 straight passes, the most to start a playoff game since 1991 (as far back as STATS can check).
— Marc Sessler (@MarcSesslerNFL) January 16, 2016
Entering the Patriots’ 27-20 victory over the Chiefs, Bill Belichick hadn’t seen his team eclipse 100 yards on the ground in more than a month. That didn’t change Saturday, despite the offense generating 340 total yards against one of the league’s top-tier defenses, which was riding a franchise-record 11-game winning streak on account of it. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ rushing plays amassed just 38 yards, and it wasn’t even a season-low — New England managed just 16 rushing yards against the New York Jets in Week 7.
The primary reason why New England is unable to run the ball is simple: the team had to replace LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis. Their injuries forced the Patriots to sign Steven Jackson, a 14-year veteran who aimed to show the country this postseason that he’s “the best kept secret in the NFL,” in late December, and pair the 32-year-old with James White, a second-year back who has less than 100 career rushing yards.
So consider the following: If New England were to win the Super Bowl, it would have accomplished it with the least effective running attack — in terms of regular season rushing yards per contest, at least — of any Super Bowl-winning team since before 2000. New England’s 87.8 rushing yards per contest ranked 30th this season; the team’s 38 yards against Kansas City were the lowest rushing total any playoff-qualifying team has accrued this postseason.
Patriots fans needn’t worry, though, because Tom Brady and the New England passing attack are potent enough to take the team to the Super Bowl, and that notion was underscored time and time again in the team’s win over Kansas City.
Pro Football Reference’s offensive simple rating system pegs New England (5.3) as the fourth-best offense in the league. Although they regressed later in the regular season, failing to score more than 20 points in each of the final two games, they exploded Saturday with one of Brady’s weapons back in the fold.
“Depending on what [Julian Edelman] can do, we’ll try to find ways to integrate him,” Brady said at a news conference this week. “Whoever’s out there, we have to have confidence in.”
Playing in his first game in nearly nine weeks, Edelman dropped a number of passes, but still hauled in 10 receptions for 100 yards, including a second and 12 conversion in the fourth quarter that allowed Brady to bleed the rest of the clock.
“It’s just great to have those guys back,” Rob Gronkowski told ESPN.com after the game. “They’re hard workers. They’re great players. The chemistry was clicking tonight.”
Even though New England’s offensive attack relies so heavily on passing, McDaniels found a way to get White involved and into space against the Chiefs on a screen, which could be a weapon in future matchups.
Brady finished the game with yet another ostentatious stat line: 28-of-42 passing, 302 passing yards, two passing touchdowns and another touchdown on the ground. It was the 116th game of his career in which he completed better than 65 percent of his passes, the third most of any quarterback since 2000. In those games, New England is 101-15, the best winning percentage of any quarterback with more than 30 of those performances over that same stretch.
With New England’s revitalized offense looking polished against a formidable defense, the team has little reason to worry about its less-than-sparkling ground game moving forward. Should the team’s offense play the way he did Saturday, it won’t matter how many yards they produce running the ball; Brady is good enough to take them where they want to go.