New England Patriots on Paper: Force feed Broncos steady diet of pigskin

“We like to win.  So, whatever we need to do to win really is good with me. Win running, win throwing, win shutting them out, win outscoring them, win in the kicking game - whatever it takes. We just have to find a way to do it this time of year. Every team we play is good. Every game is bigger than the next. We just have to try to find some way to come out on top next week. That’s really all it is.” - Bill Belichick

Well, O.k. then.

The oftentimes cryptic coach of the New England Patriots offered up that short soliloquy in response to a question about the swing of balance in the offensive play calling the past month - a move to a power-based running game that has allowed his charges to dominate their last three opponents.

A signature departure from what we've witnessed from this Patriots' team for the past decade, a period filled with high-style and aesthetically pleasing form, but sadly devoid of championship function and silver trophies.

As a result, there's nothing fancy about the New England Patriots these days, much to the chagrin of the milk and cookies crowd.

Those are the folks that want to see "Tommy Gun" in the shotgun, throwing for 350 yards and three scores, while the whiskey drinkers like the grinding, ram-it-down-their-throats physical style with quarterback Tom Brady under center, taking the snap and handing the ball to one of his power backs, already scheming the next play before the whistle blows.

That's the way it's been for the past three games, power running behind a physical offensive line bolstered by the play of two unheralded tight ends while Brady stays upright and fresh and not nearly as grumpy or schitzo as he was before offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels realized that he's got a pretty damned good running game.

It's been here the entire year, this rock 'em sock 'em ground game, just mismanaged at times, and it's no secret at all that when the Patriots run the ball effectively - and, most importantly, run it consistently - the record speaks for itself.

New England has averaged 129 yards per game on the ground this season - in their 12 wins, the average was 141, but in the 4 losses it was 94.  while the passing game stayed pretty consistent, not varying too north or too south of par with a median of 255 yards per game - overall a nice latter day balance - but the balance in the past three games has been skewed to the power running game, and the results have been devastating for the opposition.

In the past three games, the Patriots are averaging 214 yards per game on the ground while throwing for just over 150 - those are circa late-70's numbers, smashmouth numbers.  Cunningham and Grogan numbers.  The numbers that the Patriots' Erhardt / Perkins offensive concept begs for.

That said, the power running game is not going to win this championship all by itself but what it can do - and what it has been doing - is taking a lot of the heat off of Brady in the pocket and off of the receivers in the pattern - which is fortunate because, let's face it, Brady's pass catchers need all the help they can get creating space.

Julien Edelman went from an oft-injued afterthought in the offseason to putting up Welker-esque numbers, a stand-up talent that has stood tall and taken some wicked beatings to emerge as the top receiving option on the team - the rest of the cast a lesson in what can go wrong with human physiology when confronted with the game of football.

Gone are tight end Rob Gronkowski and rookie speedster Josh Boyce, while rookie deep threat Aaron Dobson has been nursing a bad foot and fellow rookie Kenbrell Thompkins has fallen off the face of the planet - leaving tough-as-nails but limited Danny Amendola, concussion prone mid-season pick up Austin Collie and butter-fingered third down back Shane Vereen to hold down the fort with Edelman.

The prognosis isn't that inspiring, but when one factors in that Brady is the one throwing the bullets and the Denver Broncos are without their top cover corner - not to mention their best pass rusher - the playing field levels out a bit.

Of course, it remains to be seen where the Broncos' defense concentrates, but with only two choices at their disposal, it's a matter of pick your poison when it comes to defending the Patriots.  The first school of thought is to try and take away the powerful two-headed rushing attack that is LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley and leave their short-handed secondary to deal with the small and quick New England pass catchers...

...the second option, is to try to limit the dangerous and powerful Patriots' running game - but just like in their secondary, the Broncos are missing some key pieces to the front seven puzzle.

Gone are tackle Kevin Vickerson and end Von Miller - rookie Sylvester Williams and 10th year veteran Shaun Phillips in their stead respectively, putting greater responsibility on nose tackle Terrence Knighton and the linebacking corps of Nate Irving, Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan to disrupt the running game at the line of scrimmage.

About 70% of New England's designed running plays hit the line of scrimmage between the guards, where the Patriots have gouged their last two opponents for 335 yards on 50 carries, an average of 6.7 yards per carry - of course, this number is skewed due to Blout's 73 yard run against the Colts, but take that away and the Patriots run a respectable 5.4 yards per carry.

This is problematic for the Broncos in that if they have to stack the box with an extra safety, it leaves their corners on an island and the likes of Vereen or even Edelman covered with a safety - and with the Patriots possessing one of the best play-action quarterbacks in the NFL, well, it's pretty easy to see where that path leads.

The key for the Broncos is the play of Knighton, who was handled pretty well in the November matchup between the two teams, the Patriots finding success with Brandon Bolden the lead back ripping off runs at a clip of eight yards per carry striaght up the middle while Vereen joined Bolden in having good success off tackle.

But unless the Broncos commit some early turnovers and allow the Patriots to gain an early two score lead, prudence dictates that the passing game should be more involved - because while it's true that the running game has been integral in setting up the play action pass, starting off drives with an equal number of passes is going to help the running game be more efficient.

Since the inception of the power running game in Baltimore three games ago,  New England has run the ball on nearly 70% of their 1st down snaps, so switching that up to more of a balance of run/pass should also help balance the offensive play calling as a whole - and make the offense just that much more unpredictable.

Like Bill said, he just likes to win and he doesn't care how it happens, as long as it does - and with a full week to prepare for the Broncos this time, better weather and, hopefully, not the atrotious first half they suffered through in the first meeting this season, it is reasonable to assume that his game plan will be plenty good enough to win the game...

...if the players can execute the plan, the Patriots should be on their way to MetLife Stadium as the AFC's representative in the Super Bowl.