In a matchup of AFC powerhouses that could go a long way in determining who will get the top seed in the conference, Patriots running back Stevan Ridley is more important than Tom Brady for a New England victory over the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football.
There are plenty of stars with household name recognition for both teams, such as three-time Super Bowl champ Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner J.J. Watt and five-time Pro-Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson. However, it is Ridley, a second-year back out of LSU, who holds the keys to the Patriots' success in a showdown in Foxborough, Mass. between the 9-3 Patriots and 11-1 Texans.
This showdown pits the two highest scoring offenses in the league against each other, with the Patriots scoring 35.8 points per game and the Texans at 29.3 per contest.
Both teams pose very well-balanced attacks, as the Pats rank fifth in passing yards and eighth in rushing yards, while the Texans rank 10th in passing yards and sixth in rushing yards.
Bill Belichick has never been predictable when it comes to who will get the ball in his backfield. In most years, it's either a crapshoot or he will simply not overwork his lead guy. However, this year, Belichick must have supreme trust in Ridley because it's clearly his backfield.
Since 2005, former Pats back, and current Cincinnati Bengals running back, BenJarvus Green-Ellis is the only running back to eclipse 225 carries for the Patriots, doing so with 229 totes in 2010. This year through 12 games, Ridley is at exactly 225 carries, totaling 1,010 yards and nine touchdowns.
With a devotion to the run in the final four games, Ridley should top 300 carries, something a Pats back has not done since 2004, when Corey Dillon ran it 345 times for 1635 yards.
So why do the Patriots need Ridley to be effective to win this one?
In New England's nine wins, Ridley has carried 178 times for 868 yards (4.88 YPC) and nine touchdowns. In the team's three losses, Ridley has amassed just 47 carries for 142 yards (3.02 YPC) and no touchdowns.
When Ridley goes, New England goes. It's impossible to ignore the impact quarterback Tom Brady (3,537 yards, 25 TD, 4 INT) has on the team, but it's clear that when Ridley receives a lot of touches and makes the most of them, the Patriots win football games.
I don't think Brady is in any way declining and that's why Ridley is being used more. I just think Belichick is always trying to do what he feels gives his current squad the best chance to win.
Brady has weapons to spread the ball around to and potentially torch a Texans pass D that has been suspect in recent weeks, but he will be without the services of tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receive/return man Julian Edelman due to injuries.
If the Texans can key in on limiting Brady, the burden will be on Ridley to deliver. Standing in his way is a Texans defense that is second in the NFL in rush defense, surrendering just 87.6 yards per game to opposing run games.
If the Texans can bottle up the ground game, it'll put more pressure on Brady. In New England's three losses, Brady has thrown three interceptions of his total four picks on the year. Remember Ridley was bottled up in those contests, putting the pressure on Brady to do it all by himself, something he couldn't do.
This game is sure to have an electric playoff-like atmosphere to it. Let's delve deeper into why the Pats need a run game to win this contest.
In the Pats' two Super Bowl losses to the Giants in 2008 and 2012, they virtually had no run game to supplement Brady. In 2008, they ran 16 times for a paltry 45 yards, and in 2012 had 19 carries for 83 yards.
In the two AFC Championship games that the Pats won to advance to those Super Bowls, the Pats carried 31 times for 146 yards in 2008 to beat the Chargers and 31 times for 96 yards to beat the Ravens in 2012.
As great as Brady is, it's clear that he's at his best when he has an effective run game working with him.
If Ridley can get going early, it'll open up play action for Brady, where he is at his best carving up opponents with precise throws. Getting the ball in his hands early and often could make for a long night for the Texan defense.
In a matchup of two teams who could meet in the 2013 AFC Championship Game, Ridley is the most important guy if the Pats want to knock off the top dog in the conference.