The New England Patriots weren’t merely a pass-first team on offense in their playoff victory last Saturday over the Baltimore Ravens. They were practically a pass-only team.
But now comes an AFC title game matchup Sunday night in Foxborough, Massachusetts, with an Indianapolis Colts defense that the Patriots bulldozed with their running game during a regular season triumph.
Part of what has made the Patriots so dominant this season is an ability to adapt their offense to their opponent. In a Week 2 win over the Minnesota Vikings, the Patriots threw for just 142 yards but ran for 150 — and won by 23 points. In a Week 6 win over the Buffalo Bills, running back Stevan Ridley carried the ball just 10 times for 23 yards while quarterback Tom Brady aired it out for 346 yards and four touchdowns.
So which New England offense will show up this weekend against the Colts?
Coach Bill Belichick, naturally, isn’t tipping his hand on that subject.
“I think you go into every game with an idea planned,” Belichick said during a conference call with reporters this week. “But in the end, during your game you do what you feel like you need to do to win. So we’ll do whatever we feel like we need to do to win.”
Against the Ravens, that meant relying on the right arm of Brady. The Patriots had only 14 rushing yards on 13 carries in the 35-31 win, and six of the carries were by Brady. The Patriots had four second-half rushing attempts, all by their quarterback. One was a sneak on a short-yardage play and three were kneel-downs as the Patriots ran all but the final few seconds off the clock before punting at the end of the game. So the Patriots had no second-half handoffs.
Brady threw 50 passes in the Baltimore game, connecting on 33 of them for 367 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception. He became the NFL’s career leader in postseason touchdown passes, moving past Joe Montana with his 46th.
New England’s offensive approach might have been dictated in part by the circumstances of the game. The Patriots had to play catch-up, facing deficits of 14-0 in the first quarter and 28-14 in the third quarter.
It also might have been dictated by the opposing defense’s strength and weaknesses. The Baltimore defense ranked fourth in the NFL against the run during the regular season and 23rd against the pass.
The Indianapolis defense was 18th against the run and 12th against the pass entering the playoffs. When the Patriots won, 42-20, at Indianapolis on Nov. 16, Brady threw for 257 yards and two touchdowns. But he also threw two interceptions and the Patriots leaned heavily on their running game. They rushed for 246 yards in that game, 201 of them by tailback Jonas Gray.
Gray, who recently had been promoted from the practice squad, had 37 carries in that game and ran for four touchdowns. In his other seven appearances for the Patriots during the regular season, Gray ran for a total of 211 yards and one touchdown on 52 carries. He was on the Patriots’ inactive list for the triumph over the Ravens and last had a carry in a game on Dec. 21.
“As far as the first game goes, both teams have changed, both teams have grown [and] improved,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said this week in a conference call. “They’ve gotten some players back. We’ve gotten some players back. I think we’ve tried to evolve as an offense. They’ve done it as a defense.
“I think this will be a totally different game. Whatever we had success with in the first game or didn’t have success with — which there were plenty of those things, too — I’m sure we’re both going to look at things. They have a great coaching staff — have a ton of respect for them and the way they prepare and present the game plan each week. They create a lot of issues as you’re getting ready to deal with them.”
The Patriots also topped 200 rushing yards in their previous postseason meeting with the Colts. New England had 234 rushing yards in a playoff win over the Colts last January in Foxborough. LeGarrette Blount, who’s back with the Patriots after spending time with the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this season, ran for 166 yards and four touchdowns on 24 carries in that AFC semifinal.
“Those games were what they were,” Belichick said. “There were a lot of things that happened in other games that we played. This is a new matchup. It’s a new situation and we’ll just see what happens this week. I don’t know. That’s why we’ll all be watching the game on Sunday to see how it unfolds. I don’t think any of us really have any idea. We’ll just have to see.”