Tom Brady is the cure for almost everything that ails the New England Patriots. So are Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski. But one thing that none of these three men can immediately control is how effectively the team can run the football.
Brady's presence behind center forces the opponent to always respect the pass. Gronkowski's size and ability as a blocker make him one of the league's best tight ends at opening up holes in the running game. Edelman and Amendola can take short passes for long gains, creating a pseudo-running game via the passing game.
But at some point in the playoffs, the Patriots are going to have to line up and run the football. In Week 17 against the Miami Dolphins, they failed in that area. But they've been struggling to run the ball for months—and really, for almost the entirety of the season.
The Patriots haven't tried very hard to establish the run based on their number of attempts, but when they have, they haven't been very effective in doing so. They ranked among the bottom 10 in the NFL in every base rushing statistic except touchdowns.
Ten of those 14 touchdowns were earned on runs inside the 5-yard line, presumably after the Patriots had already moved the ball downfield through the air. That final statistic implies that the lack of a running game isn't a problem. More of a problem is the foregone conclusion that the passing game will snap back into form when Edelman returns.
Yes, that will mean Brady has one of the security blankets he's so sorely lacked over the past six weeks since he injured his foot in mid-November, but Brady had Amendola, Gronkowski and Brandon LaFell at his fingertips against the Dolphins, and still couldn't do much to move the ball consistently.
Unless Edelman provides a huge spark to the passing game upon his return, the kind of spark that could make the Patriots forget all about the running game, the inability to run the ball could be their biggest weakness.
Teams that rush for 100 yards or more are 409-176 all-time in the postseason (.699), winning nearly 70 percent of the time. When a team fails to hit triple digits in the running game, though, their success rate falters to .238, with a 106-339 overall record. Teams that fail to reach 100 rushing yards have done a little better lately, with a .318 win ratio and a 49-105 record, but teams that rush for 100 yards are 116-60 (.659) in the postseason in that span.
The Patriots know these things better than anyone else; they are 14-2 (.875) with 100 yards or more on the ground, but they have still compiled a 7-6 record (.538) when falling below 100 rushing yards. Out of the eight times the Patriots have been bounced from the playoffs, six have been because the team couldn't establish the run.
Even when measuring by yards per rush attempt, the Patriots have still been way more successful with an efficient running game, compiling an 11-3 record (.786) since 2000 when averaging four or more yards per rush attempt in the playoffs. On the flip side, they are 9-5 (.643) when failing to average four yards per attempt.
Brady fought through an inept running game in the playoffs last year and led the team to its fourth Super Bowl victory on the strength of one of the most dominant postseason stretches for any quarterback ever. That was also behind an offensive line that allowed him to be pressured just 26.2 percent of the time in the postseason, as opposed to 34.9 percent of the time which has been the case in 2015, according to Pro Football Focus.
Make no mistake; Brady is completely capable of putting up those numbers again this year. He has the same cast of weapons at his disposal, aside from a leakier offensive line. If he can't, or doesn't put up those numbers, it's going to fall on the running game to pick up the slack. So far in 2015, they haven't been able to do that.
If Patriots fans want to be worried about something, it's the running game. Can't see that improving much in the playoffs.— Doug Kyed (@DougKyed) January 4, 2016
Before Edelman's injury, the Patriots converted 48.7 percent of their third downs, which was the most in the NFL. Since then, their conversion rate is just 32 percent, sixth-lowest in the NFL. That's also because they were averaging 6.1 yards to go on third down (lowest in the NFL) before Edelman went down, and are now averaging 7.4 yards to go (13th-lowest in the NFL).
The only way to avoid those 3rd-and-long scenarios is to be successful running the ball on first and second down. This season, the Patriots have averaged just 3.66 yards per carry on first and second down, the eighth-lowest in the NFL, but those numbers include injured running back Dion Lewis. Since his injury, the Patriots have rushed for an average of 3.25 yards per carry on first and second down, the lowest in the league.
Without LeGarrette Blount from Weeks 15-17, the Patriots averaged 3.06 yards per carry on first and second down, fourth-lowest in the league.
The Patriots will have to discover some consistency in the running game to keep their playoff hopes alive. Whether that comes on first, second or third down is immaterial. Get the ground game moving, and the Patriots have a much better chance of winning in the postseason.