Over the past month, the Patriots have started to turn things around. The team looks to be hitting on all cylinders heading into the playoffs. The defense has been much more aggressive, totally dominating their opponents in recent weeks. Tom Brady is spreading the ball around on offense, keeping opposing defenses off balance. Everything is working for the Patriots right now except for one thing: the running game. The Achilles heel of this team all year long has been their inability to run the football and if history is any indicator that could spell doom for the Patriots in the postseason.
Last year alone, in the 11 playoff games including the Super Bowl, the team with the most rushing yards was on the winning side nine times. The two teams that won without holding an edge in rushing yards were only outgained by a combined 39 yards. Even the Patriots, when they hadAntowain Smith and Kevin Faulk in the backfield, ran the ball with some measure of success during their Super Bowl runs in 2001 and 2003. No matter how you slice it, teams that are successful in the NFL's second season are the ones that run the football consistently.
Right now, the Patriots don't fall into that category. Even in their 28-0 demolition of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they chose to throw the football in the fourth quarter because they didn't have any confidence in their running game. Not being able to run the football late in the game could be a problem come playoff time. Incomplete passes when a team has the lead gives their opponent more time to stage a comeback. That's the reason they call him "clock killin'" Corey Dillon."
"I feel confident in our running game," guard Stephen Neal said. "I mean, it's not where it was last year but hopefully we'll just keep improving and we'll be fine by the time the playoffs start."
The Patriots have been able to run the football with some success against teams with weak rush defenses but their production on the ground against teams with winning records is less than impressive. New England has played eight games against teams with winning records and they've averaged just 76.5 yards rushing in those games. In their six games against teams with losing records, the Patriots rushing average jumps to 116 yards. The reigning Super Bowl champions have only topped 100 yards rushing as a team once against a playoff-caliber opponent. That was against the Falcons, who are the NFL's 22nd ranked rush defense after 14 weeks.
The problem for New England right now is they won't be facing the Jets, Bills, Dolphins, Saints and Raiders in the playoffs, so they need to figure out a way to run the ball on the AFC's better teams if they want to make a strong playoff push.
"We always want to run the ball and we always want to improve and run it better," tackle Tom Ashworth said. "We'll keep working on it over the next couple of weeks and get it going."
There are a number of factors that have contributed to the Patriots lack of rushing yards against good teams. One reason has been the health of the running backs. Dillon and Faulk have been injured for a large part of the season and in their absence, the Patriots have been forced to use a hodgepodge of different runners. Patrick Pass, Heath Evans, Mike Cloud and Amos Zereoue have all carried the ball for New England this season. Dillon hasn't been 100 percent healthy since early October and it's imperative he's ready to go at full strength when the playoffs begin.
"We need Corey," Neal said. "He's our horse and our running game isn't the same without him in there. That's not taking anything away from the other guys but Corey is one of the best backs in the league and that makes him almost impossible to replace."
Inconsistency along the offensive line has been another reason for the Patriots struggles in the running game. New England has started eight different players on their offensive line since the opening game against the Raiders and only one lineman, rookie guard Logan Mankins, has started every game at his original position. Left tackle Matt Light and center Dan Koppen were both placed on injured reserve, causing the team to be without their two most complete players on the offensive line for the playoffs.
"It makes it difficult when we're in a position where we have to keep replacing good players on the offensive line," tight end Christian Fauria said. "Matt and Dan are great players but the guys behind them are well-prepared and guys we trust will go out each week and do their job well."
The Patriots have qualified for the playoffs by winning their division and that was certainly this team's first goal. However, for New England to reach their ultimate goal of winning a third consecutive Super Bowl title, they will have to run the ball with more consistency against tough competition in the postseason.
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Patriots send two to the Pro Bowl
The Patriots had two players selected to this year's Pro Bowl team and neither were a big surprise. Tom Brady will be making his third trip to Hawaii, while Richard Seymour is making his fourth straight appearance.
Brady leads the AFC in passing attempts (492) and passing yards (3,888). He is having his best season statistically but the Patriots quarterback wishes more of his teammates were going to Hawaii with him.
"I'm glad that I'm representing the New England Patriots but I certainly wish more of my teammates were able to join me," Brady said after being informed he made the Pro Bowl. "But I accept it and I'm grateful and look forward to the experience."
Seymour missed four games this season but the Patriots defense has been dominant since his return and that fact wasn't lost on the players and coaches who voted him in.
"After being selected four times in a row, I just count my blessings," Seymour said. "It's just awesome to be recognized by your peers and by other coaches in the league for what you do on the football field."
Like Brady, Seymour took time to praise his teammates.
"A lot of credit needs to go to the guys around me," he said. "Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren are both having great years. As a total unit, it's an honor."
Three players who were thought to have a chance to make it – Patrick Pass, Josh Miller and Larry Izzo – were not selected. The Chargers Lorenzo Neal beat out Pass, who finished first in the fan voting but didn't get enough votes from the players and coaches to get in. Izzo also lost out to a Charger when he was left off the team in favor of Hanik Milligan.
The closest race was probably between punters Miller and the Bills Brian Moorman. The two are having virtually identical seasons but in the end, Moorman got the nod over Miller. It's hard to argue with the selection of Moorman. Both players are having Pro Bowl years but unfortunately, only one punter makes the Pro Bowl squad for the AFC.
The Patriot players who didn't make the Pro Bowl are still eligible to be named as alternates.
The Patriots confirmed on Thursday that the team is placing offensive tackle Matt Light on injured reserve, officially ending his 2005 season. Light joins center Dan Koppen as the second starting Patriots offensive linemen to be placed on IR this year…The Patriots are only giving an average of 11.5 points in their last six games…The Patriots and Jets will square off in the last Monday Night Football game to be broadcasted on ABC. ESPN will take over the long running series in 2006.