FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Early in the third quarter of their AFC divisional playoff game against Indianapolis Saturday night , the New England Patriots held a scant six-point lead and had the ball at their own 12-yard line. Tom Brady, the quarterback in these parts for 14 seasons and three Super Bowl titles, took the snap and held out the football to his right, where running back Stevan Ridley approached.
The Patriots, to that point, had run 16 first-down plays. Thirteen of them had been on the ground. Why would this one be different?
“It was a pretty hard-sell run that we ran there,” Brady said later. And it showed why these Patriots — who play at Denver in the AFC championship game Sunday — are a wholly different kind of dangerous than they have been in almost every other playoff run they have made with Brady under center and Coach Bill Belichick on the sideline.
Since the Patriots won the last of their three Super Bowls following the 2004 season, they have established a well-earned reputation as one of the most pass-happy franchises in the NFL. In the nine seasons since, Brady's offense has ranked in the top four in passing yards five times. During that span, wide receivers Wes Welker and Randy Moss and tight end Rob Gronkowski became all-pros, holding seven of New England's most productive receiving seasons of all-time.
“You're always going to think Tom Brady when you think New England,” Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount said.
It will be no different Sunday in a matchup that will be largely hyped as Brady vs. Peyton Manning, two of the best to ever play quarterback. But from the Patriots' standpoint, that perceived rivalry can't define the game, because Brady simply doesn't have the weapons he once did. Moss didn't play in the league this year. Welker signed with, of all teams, Denver in the offseason. Gronkowski is injured and out for the season. Fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez is in prison. Even running back Danny Woodhead, who caught 40 passes last year, went elsewhere, signing with San Diego.
The result: New England enters the AFC title game without its top five pass catchers from 2012. So the Patriots had to remake themselves, a process that took the better part of the season. What has emerged — and was cemented in what became a 43-22 victory over the Colts — is something shocking: A run-first team with Brady, so often in the shotgun in the past, squarely under center, frequently checking into run plays if the defense seems to be looking for the pass.
“Me personally, I believe that our team is the best when we are running the ball like that,” veteran guard Logan Mankins said after the Indianapolis game. “The more runs we get, I think the better we are and the better chance we have to win.”
The totals from the victory over the Colts: six rushing touchdowns, a franchise record for any game, with four from Blount. The Patriots' 234 yards on the ground were the second-most in the team's 43 playoff games, the most since 1985. And lest anyone think this was a one-game fluke, that the Colts simply chose to lay back and defend Brady rather than stuffing the run, check out the Patriots over the past 10 games, when they averaged 32.1 rushing attempts per game, carries that at various times have gone to Blount, to Ridley — who added two touchdowns and 52 yards against Indianapolis — and to Shane Vereen.
“It's really been a strength of ours all season, the way our running backs have played and the way our offensive line performs,” Brady said. “. . . To have that running game be as efficient as we've been, to get big play after big play, has been great.”
The key, at the moment, is Blount, a fourth-year back from Oregon who, before this season, was likely best known for punching a player from Boise State, leading to a suspension that cost him most of his senior year. But last spring, when Belichick was considering pursuing a trade with Tampa Bay to acquire Blount, he called Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, a former Buccaneer, to inquire about Blount's attitude.
“I just was honest with him,” Talib said, and he said he told Belichick: “He's a perfect locker room guy. You won't have not one problem out of him in the locker room, and you'll get a bunch of explosive plays out of him.”
Yet after averaging just eight carries through the first 15 games of the season, Blount has only now exploded. He said at some point during the season, Belichick told him he had to lower his pads, that as a six-foot, 250-pound back, running upright wasn't allowing him to use his power. The result: In the past three games, including his 166-yard performance against the Colts, Blount has averaged 21.3 carries and 143.7 yards with eight touchdowns.
“I think he's got a good set of skills to run the ball,” Belichick said. “He's got that combination of size, power and quickness and speed. He's not a fullback. He's more than that. He's not a scat back, either. He's got power. He can run hard. He can make guys miss and he can go the distance.”
And he is like so many players across the Patriots lineup: New. New England played in its most recent Super Bowl, a loss to the New York Giants, less than two years ago. Yet the starting offense against Indianapolis featured only three players who started against the Giants back in February 2012 — Brady, Mankins and tackle Nate Solder. The injury-ravaged defense is even harder to recognize, with linebacker Rob Ninkovich and safety Devin McCourty the only starters back from the Super Bowl — and McCourty was a cornerback back then.
Yet somehow, the Patriots won at least 10 games for the 11th straight season. Somehow, they are back in the AFC title game for the third straight year. The quarterback, the coach, the uniforms — that's about all that remains from most of those teams. Even the offensive approach is different.
Back to that play in the third quarter against the Colts, when the game was still tight. Brady took those steps to his right, and Ridley ran to take the ball. Except he didn't.
“Because we were running the ball so well,” Brady said, “maybe that got a little reaction.”
It did indeed, and suddenly, there was wide receiver Danny Amendola behind the defense. Brady hit him in stride, and 53 yards later, the Patriots had a huge play — a pass based on their ability to run. They scored their fourth touchdown — this on a Ridley run — eight plays after that.
“It's just: What is the strength of your offense?” Mankins said. “At times, we're a better passing team than a running team. Right now, I don't know if we're a better running team than a passing team, but the running is working. So why go away from something that's working?”