Patriots

Patriots

FOXBORO -- The Patriots established an identity late in the season. They went about it deliberately. Steadfastly. They were going to be a we're-going-to-run-when-everyone-knows-we're-going-to-run offense. 

Of course they'd pass. They still had Tom Brady. The play-action passing game was still their best chance at picking up chunks of yardage at a time. Throwing the football was still the most efficient way for them to move their offense. But they were going into the latter portion of their schedule playing a style of football that made them a bit of outlier in 2018.

No way they'd get away from it at Arrowhead Stadium, in the AFC Championship Game, in late January, when the temperatures dipped into the teens. No way. 

Josh McDaniels turned in a smash-mouth masterpiece Sunday, putting up just enough points to beat the Chiefs in overtime, 37-31. 

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Consider some of the numbers . . . 

* Sony Michel for 113 yards on a season-high 29 attempts. 
* James Develin played a season-high 41 snaps. 
* As a team, the Patriots ran it a season-high 48 times.
* The Patriots went 13-for-19 on third down for a season-high conversion rate of 68 percent.
* Brady and the Patriots offense controlled possession for a whopping 43:59. 

Their strategy couldn't have been more clear: Set the pace, and keep the Chiefs off the field. 

In so doing -- using I-formations, split-back formations with Brady under center, 21-personnel packages and 22-personnel packages -- the Patriots turned back the clock in a league that seems to be becoming more pass-happy and spread-centric by the week. They ran for just 3.7 yards per carry, but they stuck with it for a reason.

 

"We kinda slowed the game down a little bit," Develin said. "We got some things going in the run game. Offensive line did an incredible job opening up holes. Our backs were running hard all night. It was really a good team effort . . . We executed tonight."

It started with the first drive of the game. It lasted 15 plays (nine of which included a fullback) and traveled 80 yards. It started with a run for 11 yards out of a 22-personnel package (two backs, two tight ends) and was punctuated by a goal-line score for Michel out of a 23-personnel alignment.

Statement made.

"I definitely was," Marcus Cannon replied when asked if he was excited to know the Patriots would commit to the run the way they did Sunday.  

"I was. And we trust Josh. Whatever he tells us we're gonna do, that's the best thing to do. We got pretty happy we were gonna run. But KC has a very good d-line and it's not very easy to run on 'em so we knew it was gonna be a challenge. Definitely was gonna be a challenge with these guys. But we got pretty excited the first play was gonna be a run."

That the Patriots leaned on their run game came as no surprise. The Chiefs allowed 5.0 yards per carry in 2018, and Michel (113 yards, two touchdowns) cracked the 100-yard mark against Kansas City back in Week 6. As a team, the Patriots ran for 173 yards on 38 attempts and created a whopping 97 yards after contact in their first meeting with the Chiefs. 

Against 21-personnel groupings, the Chiefs were particularly vulnerable. They allowed 6.2 yards per carry against those looks this season and 7.9 yards per pass attempt. Against the Patriots in October, the Chiefs allowed 15.4 yards per pass attempt when McDaniels deployed "21," and 5.1 yards per carry. 

No wonder Develin and Michel were on the field as much as they were throughout the game -- and particularly early on.

"It was gonna be a tough physical game," Andrews said from inside the visitors locker room at Arrowhead. "We wanted to start fast and we were able to do that."

The Patriots had been building to this.

Bill Belichick and his staff challenged players to make yards running the football in Week 12 against the Jets at MetLife Stadium, their first game after the bye. They stuck with it, running more two-back sets than any team in football outside of the Niners since then. 

Part of it was out of necessity as they lost their most explosive passing-game threat in Week 16. But part of it was based on the depth of their roster at running back and the strengths of their offensive line. Part of it was because this is a game played by human beings who can either ride high or feel demoralized based on how well they're physically imposing their will on their opponent.

 

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Look at 'em now. Then they ran all over the Chargers and their defensive back-heavy sets in the Divisional Round. And it was more of the same to open the AFC title game. 

For two weeks, we'll talk about how the Super Bowl will be a clash of offensive styles. The Rams use 11-personnel almost exclusively. They don't employ a fullback. They're built for Los Angeles. They're built for domes. The Patriots are built for fields recently re-sodded and frozen over, apparently. 

They'll be time for that conversation, and it'll be a fascinating one. 

But for now, what can you say? You can't necessarily say that old-school football won. You can't really point out than an anachronistic offense is going to the Super Bowl. The Patriots did, after all, throw...throw...and throw again when faced with three consecutive third-and-10 situations in overtime. 

You can say the Patriots have redefined themselves offensively and ended up back where they've been four times in the last five years. You can say they adjusted to their personnel -- its strengths and limitations -- and still churned out 78 points in two postseason games. You can say they adapted and won. 

That'll always be in vogue. 

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