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Tim O

Patriots built to run

  • New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount (29) heads downfield for a touchdown during the second half of an AFC divisional NFL playoff football game against the Indianapolis Colts in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

    New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount (29) heads downfield for a touchdown during the second half of an AFC divisional NFL playoff football game against the Indianapolis Colts in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

  • New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount (29) heads downfield for a touchdown during the second half of an AFC divisional NFL playoff football game against the Indianapolis Colts in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

    New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount (29) heads downfield for a touchdown during the second half of an AFC divisional NFL playoff football game against the Indianapolis Colts in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

  • New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount (29) heads downfield for a touchdown during the second half of an AFC divisional NFL playoff football game against the Indianapolis Colts in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
  • New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount (29) heads downfield for a touchdown during the second half of an AFC divisional NFL playoff football game against the Indianapolis Colts in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

There’s been much talk about the Patriots transforming themselves into a running team this season. How they’ve reinvented themselves in the face of changing personnel, channeling football’s smash-mouth past in an era that’s all about aerial stunts.

Yes, New England has been doling out extra helpings of the running game recently, last week’s 46 rushes against Indianapolis being the biggest portion of the season. And attacking on the ground against defenses built to stop the pass is against-the-grain clever in true Moneyball fashion.

But rushing the ball isn’t new for these Patriots. They were built to run, and just how well they run today in Denver will determine whether or not they are back on the ground in New Jersey in two weeks playing in Super Bowl XLVIII.

It was no secret New England would have to rely on its running game this year after losing four of its top five receivers from 2012 – Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez and Danny Woodhead. But even with all of those guys, and 11 games of Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots were still one of the most run-happy teams in the NFL last season. New England ranked second in the league in rushing attempts (523) and seventh in rushing yards (2,184) in 2012 while Stevan Ridley was the seventh most productive individual running back (1,263 yards).

So the seeds of this run-heavy attack were planted last year, and when all of those receivers left the team in the offseason, it was clear that approach would need to be cultivated again this season. And why not? The most stable, experienced and (arguably) talented unit coming into the season was the offensive line, it only made sense to make use of them.

The Patriots finished the 2013 regular season ranked ninth in both rushing attempts (470) and yards (2,065). While those numbers are slightly down from last year, that decrease makes sense for a few reasons. First, Ridley’s total carries dropped from 290 to 178 after he was put in the doghouse for fumbling, so the team had to go to Plan B for a lead back. Second, the offense as a whole had trouble getting in sync and staying on the field because of all the receiver turnover, so it ran fewer plays this year (1,138) than last year (1,191). And third, all the second-half comebacks this season forced New England into more must-pass situations.

But there’s little doubt the Patriots entered the season trying to establish the run. They had more than 30 rushing attempts in three of their first four games and five of their first eight. In the second half of the season they had 30-plus runs in only four of eight games, but there’s also little doubt they have been leaning on the ground game more than ever in the last few weeks, which was really this team’s destiny all along.

After rushing for a season-high 267 yards on 43 attempts in the regular-season finale against Buffalo, New England totaled 234 yards on those season-high 46 attempts last week against the Colts. All week long, Coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have been praising those rushing efforts, but they’ve also been insisting they won’t necessarily try to establish the run today against the Broncos, they’ll just take what the defense gives them.

Don’t believe them.

Even if the weather today in Denver is pass-friendly, the Patriots will want to get the ground game going. They tried to do just that the first time they played the Broncos this year, running the ball on seven of their first 13 plays before fumbles from Ridley, Brady and LeGarrette Blount led to a 17-0 deficit and forced New England into pass mode for the rest of the game.

And it makes perfect sense to try to establish the run against Denver, no matter what its defense is showing. Controlling the clock with time-consuming, rush-heavy drives will keep Peyton Manning and the record-setting Broncos offense off the field. Plus, Denver has shown some weakness against inside, power running, which has become New England’s forte of late with 250-pound Blount leading the way. Also, the Broncos are missing two key members of their front seven that played against New England back on Nov. 24 – linebacker Von Miller and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson.

Of course, San Diego wanted to work the run last week against the Broncos for some of those very reasons, but Denver was having none of it. The Chargers gained just 65 yards on 18 carries and didn’t score a single point for the first three quarters as they were trying in vain to establish the ground game. If the Broncos defense can limit the Patriots like that, it will be hard for Brady and his limited group of receivers to hang with Manning and Co.

But remember, the Pats were built to run. They have been building to this moment for the last two seasons. Blount and Ridley should find yards today in Denver. When they do, it will open things up for Brady and the receivers against a Broncos secondary that is also banged up after losing its top cover corner, Chris Harris.

With the offense moving the ball on the ground and in the air, and Belichick working his schematic magic against Manning, the Patriots will have enough to beat Denver. Which means New England’s throwback running attack will get a chance to play in a throwback cold-weather championship game.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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