Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Key to team's health is a balanced diet
IT ALMOST goes against what has become our football sense in this day and age when the rules are more forgiving to the passing game and elite quarterback play is practically considered a prerequisite to winning a championship.
It almost goes against our sensibility, too, given the current condition of the Patriots' roster. They lost their All-Pro right tackle at midseason, lost one of football's best blocking tight ends shortly thereafter, their star left guard hasn't practiced this week after incurring an ankle injury in the regular season finale, and their left tackle has had concussion issues. Oh, and it's still that Tom Brady guy standing behind center.
But if the Patriots are going to advance past next week's divisional round - and if Brady is going to match the all-time record by winning his fourth Super Bowl - the Patriots' best hope looks like it might be getting behind that beat-up line, watch the once-in-a-lifetime quarterback hand the ball off, and letting a talented collection of running backs carry them to glory.
That's easy to say after last week, of course, when the Pats piled up 267 rushing yards en route to punishing the Bills - though such trust in the run game is rooted in more than just that game, or in the 142 yards gained in the game before that.
Rather, it's proven a productive strategy over the course of this season, as well as over the course of New England's playoff successes throughout the past 13 years. And as impressive as a LeGarrette Blount-led 6.2 yards per haul was last week, it's not necessarily critical that the Pats run the ball exceeding well, but more that they merely maintain balance between their ground and air attacks.
For example, when the Patriots threw the ball fewer than 10 times more than they ran it, they went 7-0 while averaging 34.3 points per game this season and, dating back to 2001, they're 11-0 when meeting that criteria in playoff games. Contrarily, when they were more pass heavy this season they went 5-4, and their scoring average dipped to 22.7 points, while they're 6-7 and scoring 21.5 points in the postseason.
And looking at that balance through the perspective of percentages, the ideal split appears to be 60-40 between passing and running. In the 2013 season, the Patriots were 9-0 and scored 33 points per game when achieving at least that ratio, compared to 3-4 when not. In the postseason they're 13-1 over the last dozen years when running the ball on at least 40 percent of offensive snaps, while they're 4-7 when it's less than that, and their scoring average slides precipitously from 28.4 to 19.7.
"Whatever we need to do to win, and if it's handing it off 70 times, then that's what we've got to do," said Brady, whose teams are 9-0 when rushing 30 or more times in the playoffs, 15-2 when he hands it off at least 25 times. "If they're having a problem stopping it, then we've got to be good enough to take advantage of that, and vice versa if that's throwing the ball.
"Whatever they're having a tough time defending, that's what you've got to be able to get to, so it's important not to be one-dimensional in these games."
At times in the recent past, the Patriots have been too one-dimensional - and it has cost them. In their last three, and in six of their last eight playoff games, Brady has thrown the ball at least 40 times. The only one of those games that New England won was last year's divisional-round trouncing of the Texans.
Overall, the team is 4-5 in the postseason when Brady has at least 40 attempts, compared to 10-1 when he tosses it fewer than 35 times (with the only loss coming when it scored 34 points in the 2006 AFC championship game). Then this season the Patriots averaged 37.4 points per game when Brady was asked to throw 33 passes or fewer, while scoring only 23.4 points when he needed to throw more than that.
Part of that is obviously based on the fact that once a team has scored enough, or taken a significant lead, it typically runs the ball in order to eat up the clock and minimize the risk of a turnover. That's clearly part of the correlation between New England's rushing attempts and its success.
But since Super Bowl XLII it's been difficult to pin the Patriots' reliance on the passing game on playing to the score. They led that Super Bowl in the fourth quarter, yet ran the ball on just 25 percent of their downs. In 2010 they were within a field goal entering the final period, yet Brady threw 45 passes against the Jets. Last year's conference final loss to the Ravens was tied entering the fourth, yet Brady threw 54 times.
What should help the Patriots remain multidimensional this time, though, is that they have good backs. Blount averaged 5 yards per carry this season. Stevan Ridley gained 4.3 per rush, and Shane Vereen picked up 4.7. With that combination, plus Brandon Bolden, the Pats totaled at least 110 yards nine times. They won them all, and went 3-4 otherwise.
Since 2001 the Patriots are just 4-7 when getting outgained by their opponent in the run game - but 13-0 when finishing with more rushing yards. That's often a reflection of controlling the contest, playing tough, staying disciplined and remaining dedicated to balance.
The Patriots may be hobbled up front, they may be missing Rob Gronkowski, and they may ultimately trust no one more than Brady. But they have the talent in the backfield to take advantage if they keep giving their horses opportunities to run - regardless of the score - they have the ability to carry this team deep into the postseason.
"That's been a big strength for us," Brady said. "It needs to continue to be a strength, and hopefully that opens up other areas of our offense that, once you're doing something really well and they kind of focus on it, then maybe you can do some other things really well off of that."
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.