The New England Patriots are back in the playoffs for the fifth straight year, but offensively the team will feature a collection of weapons who are, for the most part, unproven in the postseason.
Julian Edelman had a breakout campaign in 2013, with 105 catches for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns. Behind Edelman was Danny Amendola, with 54 catches for 633 yards and two touchdowns. That's just more than half of Edelman's production, a precipitous drop-off for a team that has been known in recent years for having a number of weapons who make defenses pick their poison.
The Patriots were forced to rely on three rookie receivers this season, but Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce have all fought injuries and slowly made less and less of an impact as the season has progressed.
Boyce was put on IR after injuring his ankle in Week 15, while Dobson and Thompkins combined for just 15 catches and zero touchdowns since the Pats' Week 10 bye. Dobson also reinjured his foot in Week 17 and has been missing from practice ever since.
That leaves just Edelman, Amendola, Thompkins and on-the-roster/off-the-roster Austin Collie as the Pats' only threats at wide receiver—arguably the least intimidating squad left in the playoffs.
But, because of their running backs, the Pats aren't dead in the water, and if opponents like the Indianapolis Colts this weekend are able to shut down Edelman, New England will have to lean heavily on its talented trio.
LeGarrette Blount had a surprising season after coming to New England via trade on draft weekend in April. After being on the roster bubble through training camp, Blount emerged as the Patriots' best running back this season. He got better with each game, saving his best for last with 334 yards of total offense, including two long touchdown runs, in the season finale.
Blount's size and deceptive quickness have added a new element to the Patriots' backfield, and there's little doubt he will get the bulk of the carries.
Blount's emergence was out of necessity when Stevan Ridley's fumbling problems continued this season, along with a Week 1 wrist injury to Shane Vereen. Ridley was supposed to be the lead back, though that designation means little in New England.
After being a healthy scratch in Week 13 against the Houston Texans, Ridley settled back in as the change-of-pace back behind Blount. In the four games to end the season, Ridley tallied 43 carries for 197 yards—good for 4.58 yards per carry—and, most importantly, no fumbles.
Ridley still has elite explosiveness and could run with something to prove in the playoffs, much like he did against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 16.
Last comes Shane Vereen, who lost the first half of the season to his wrist injury. Upon his return in Week 11, Vereen put together a dominant stretch of four games where he had 33 catches for 315 yards. But in the final three games of the season, Vereen was held to just seven catches for 54 yards.
Whether or not Vereen can return to being the dominant receiving back he was in that four-game stretch could determine the Pats' fate in the playoffs.
Colts coach Chuck Pagano had this to say about the Patriots backs (via Tom E. Curran of CSNNE.com):
LeGarrette is a big, strong, physical, downhill runner that if you don’t tackle this guy and you don’t get a number of hats on him, he’s always getting positive yards, he’s always falling forward, he breaks a ton of tackles, he’s got a lot of yards after contact, and Ridley is the same way. He’s strong and can make the jump cut, good vision, all those things. Then a guy like Shane Vereen comes in, and he’s so dynamic, it’s almost Marshall Faulk and Kevin Faulk, and you go back to all the great ones, third down guys that – splitting them out in empty [formations] and throwing them deep balls and throwing them the screen game, it’s going to be a huge challenge for us.
Brandon Bolden and fullback James Develin have also chipped in throughout the season and might be called on to do so again if injuries or fumbles strike.
Blount, Ridley and Vereen are a talented trio, and each brings a different element to the Patriots backfield. As injuries have added up at receiver and tight end, it has put the focus on the running backs at the most important time of the year.
While this is a much different Patriots offense, they also have the most talented group of running backs they've ever had for a playoff run. With rain in the forecast for Saturday's game and a suspect Colts run defense, the Pats could be primed to run wild in the divisional round.
And it won't stop there. Blount, Ridley and Vereen just might have to carry the team if they're to make it to the Super Bowl.