Did Patriots latest overnight transformation make them unbeatable?
ATLANTA – After losing to the then-8-5-1 Pittsburgh Steelers, 17-10, in Week 15, the New England Patriots just weren’t the team the rest of the NFL has come to fear, hate and respect.
At 9-5, the Patriots were in no real danger of missing the playoffs. But they had lost two straight and three of their last five — something New England teams never do in late November and December.
The Patriots also risked having to play wild-card weekend, which they have done only three times in the 16 playoff trips Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have worked together, none since 2009.
And most startling, folks around the NFL were wondering if Belichick and Brady had finally lost their mojo.
Belichick never blinked. He just decided to turn Brady’s offense into a devastating ground war, and overnight the Pats were dominant once again.
Since rushing for just 77 yards in a Week 14 loss at Miami and 96 in Pittsburgh, the Pats rung up 273 yards on 47 attempts in Week 16 vs. Buffalo, 131 on 30 in Week 17 vs. the Jets, 155 on 34 in the divisional-round win over the Chargers and 176 on 48 in the AFC title game in Kansas City.
Yes, Brady is still the not-at-all-silent assassin who sealed the deal on their third straight Super Bowl appearance and his mind-boggling ninth as a Patriot with Belichick.
But it’s that dominating ground attack —159-735-10 rushing, a 52:28 total and 13:07 per game time-of-possession advantage — over the past four games that has made them unbeatable.
The ringleader of this reimagined Patriots offense has been rookie first-round draft choice Sony Michel, who’s led the way with 85-408-6 rushing in the last four games, including three over 100 yards.
How unusual is this for the Patriots? Since Belichick took over the team, New England has had just eight 100-yard backs in 40 playoff games — and Michel now has two of them.
But Michel is not a one-man gang. Along with James White and Rex Burkhead, this might be the deepest backfield Belichick has fielded with the Patriots — and he is thrilled to have them.
“We feel very fortunate to have a good set of backs,” Belichick says, “they’re all very talented, have been very productive for us.
“You know James (White) has been their leader, he’s been with team in a number of different roles, he’s been very clutch in the passing game and has also been very clutch in the running game as a situational player.
“Sony (Michel) has the least experience. He was hurt a couple times in the preseason and missed a little bit of time in midseason but he’s worked hard and continued to improve and learn the offense and just becomes more and more valuable each week.
“Rex (Burkhead) is a versatile player who can really play on all four downs for us.
“He’s good on first, second, third and fourth down, he has a big role in the kicking game and is a very dependable player. Rex plays passing plays, blitz pickup, really all the things that we ask him to do.
“It’s a good group. They’ve all made a big contribution to our football team. Whichever one is out there we have a lot of confidence in.”
Much of their success is due to recent dominant performances from the offensive line, and Belichick credits much of that to his O-line coach, the venerable Dante Scarnecchia.
“Dante has always done a great job with the offensive line. He’s a very good teacher, a great fundamental teacher and he helps each individual player but Dante’s greatest strength is his ability to get the entire line, and that sometimes includes tight ends, fullbacks, running backs and even quarterbacks to think together and see things consistently in the same manner so they operate as a team.”
This Sunday they will try and use that formula to once again be the best team in football.