The Patriots offense is what it is. They want to run the football. They want to run the football in just about every situation. Even when they throw the football, they typically choose to throw it short.
They are predictable. They know it. The defenses they play definitely know it. And that's making it harder for Bill Belichick's offense to do what it wants to do as defenses try different ways to stop a scheme that would conservatively be described as "run-heavy."
What the Patriots have seen relatively consistently are defenses that build a wall of defenders between the tackles and at or near the line of scrimmage. In fact, defenses choose to stack the box against the Patriots and their power running game personnel more so than they do against any other team in football.
Consider these figures from NextGen Stats: Damien Harris, New England's first and second-down back, sees a larger percentage of eight-man boxes defensively than any other back in the league (44.6 percent of the time). From Week 7 through Week 11, there was not a single game in which Harris didn't see eight-man boxes on at least half of his carries.
In Week 12, the Cardinals stacked the box less often (42.9 percent of Harris carries). But they were liberal in their use of heavy personnel, and the Patriots used various formations and personnel groupings in order to try to spread the Arizona defense out and lighten the box.
"Arizona certainly took a swing at that last week," Josh McDaniels said this week when asked about defenses trying to stop his running game. "Houston was a little different the way they tried it. I think we've run the ball fairly effectively this year and so I think when you watch us on tape I'm sure there's a conversation that people have each week about how they want to play.
"Some people do more schematically different things than others. And that's part of the challenge of the National Football League on gameday [and] why adjustments are so important because you can see things that you haven't practiced or that you've never seen from the other team. We've seen a few of those the last so many weeks. That's OK. That's part of what we need to be able to do on Sunday is adjust to some of those looks and continue to be productive. Hopefully you never get knocked out of something you want to do. But you might have to change something in order to continue doing it."
The Chargers couldn't be blamed if this weekend they tried an approach similar to the one the Cardinals used a week ago. Cam Newton threw for just 84 yards on 18 attempts, he was sacked three times and picked off twice. Meanwhile the Patriots picked up just 3.7 yards per carry. With no fear of being beaten deep down the field, the Cardinals sold out to stop the run and effectively neutralized the Patriots when they weren't working on a short field following an explosive return in the kicking game or a turnover.
Plus, they knew what was coming. And the Chargers will, too. Or at least they should. The Patriots pass less frequently than any team in the league on early downs in neutral situations (meaning not in the final two minutes of a half, with the game's outcome still in doubt). And even in situations when pass plays are the norm, the Patriots still are less likely to throw than any other team in the league.
Even when the Patriots do choose to throw, the deep ball hasn't been a significant part of the equation for them. Over the last three weeks, Newton has the third-lowest air yards per attempt figure in football (behind only Alex Smith and Nick Mullens). On the season, he ranks 27th out of 28 quarterbacks with at least 300 snaps in that category.
Predictable as the Patriots are, they remain the most efficient rushing team in the NFL with an expected points added per rush number of 0.067 and a run success rate of 47.9 percent. That's fairly remarkable -- and says a lot about the performance of the Patriots offensive line -- given teams have been sending numbers at New England's run game.
But because the Patriots are a "do what we do" offense at the moment, they'll have to continue to plow through walls of defenders in order to keep their playoff hopes alive.