Few would argue that the Patriots’ dynasty has been mostly thanks to the brilliance of head coach Bill Belichick and unparalleled ability of quarterback Tom Brady, both the greatest of all-time at their respective jobs. That simplistic approach also shortchanges many other underrated factors such as quality defenses that typically improve as the season goes along, playmakers on offense, innovative coordinators on both sides of the ball and reliable special teams units. With the AFC Championship Game looming on Sunday (3:05, CBS) at Gillette Stadium vs. Jacksonville (12-6), this edition of the Pats (14-3) is marked by another recent trend that they seemed to have identified before basically anyone else in the NFL: rather than relying on one running back (cough like the Jaguars’ outstanding rookie Leonard Fournette), it’s better to have an arsenal of backs that possess a bunch of unique skills.
Dion Lewis, James White and Rex Burkhead are a three-headed monster at running back for the Patriots, that always keep opponents on their toes since they never know which one is going to have the biggest role in a given game. Lewis had a really solid regular season, piling up 896 yards rushing, 214 yards receiving and nine total touchdowns. For once he was healthy all year and New England rewarded him with more touches as the fall turned to winter. In last Saturday’s easy 35-14 win over Tennessee (10-8) at Gillette in the Divisional Round, there was Lewis with 24 touches (15 rushes for 62 yards and 9 catches for 79 yards). White and Burkhead had injury-plagued campaigns but when they were on the field, they each produced as well. White missed the last two games of the regular season but he made the most of eight touches against the Titans (4 rushes for 11 yards and a touchdown; 4 catches for 29 yards and a touchdown). Of course White’s performance in last year’s Super Bowl vs. Atlanta is something that will live forever in New England sports history: he had six rushes for 29 yards, two touchdowns and a two-point conversion; plus 14 catches for 110 yards and a touchdown. When he’s played, Burkhead has been a fine addition in his first season as a Patriot. He had 264 yards rushing and five touchdowns plus 254 yards receiving and three touchdowns. He hurt his knee in Week 15 at Pittsburgh but he returned to practice this week and it looks like he’ll be active on Sunday.
For the Jaguars, it’s not bad enough that they have to try and find a way to slow down Brady and his receivers, they also must figure out a gameplan to contain these multi-talented running backs. The beauty of New England’s backs is that they can all run the ball and also catch it, they’re not one-dimensional which means it’s harder to predict specific plays. Against Tennessee, Brady attempted 53 passes and New England ran the ball 27 times. That seems unbalanced but keep in mind that 13 of his 35 completions went to Lewis and White, so they should collectively have another big workload on Sunday as the Pats try to reach yet another Super Bowl.