Patriots add ground to their pound
NFL:The New England Patriots have stressed attacking balance all season. The Houston Texans are merely the latest team to get burned in the air and on the ground. In fact, they were scorched. Tom Brady was his usual efficient self in Sunday's 41-28 AFC play-off victory over the Texans, sending New England into the conference championship game next Sunday against the Ravens. Wes Welker became the franchise leader in play-off receptions with an otherworldly first half (six catches, 120 yards), while Brady tossed four touchdown passes.But it was the running backs, the team's top rusher, Stevan Ridley, and the seldom-used Shane Vereen, who shone just as brightly among the constellation of New England stars. Vereen had three touchdowns, one shy of his total for the season.
Ridley had one. The two were omnipresent in the Patriots' offence, which took two early hits when the starter Danny Woodhead injured his thumb and tight end Rob Gronkowski went down with an arm injury.
Vereen rushed for 41 yards, all but one in the first half. His first two touchdowns came on a one-yard run late in the first quarter and on an eight-yard swing pass from Brady in the second, a play in which Vereen was neither touched nor even bothered. His third came on a pretty 33-yard toss from Brady with Vereen isolated on Texans linebacker Barrett Ruud.
Vereen had carried the ball eight times in the regular-season finale against Miami, but had not had a carry - and just one reception - in the two previous weeks. He had only eight catches all season (one of them an 84-yarder for a touchdown against the Jets on Thanksgiving).
"You never know when the dial spins who it's going to land on," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Those guys were prepared, and it's a credit to them."
Ridley took over the ground duties in the second half. He had only five carries in the first half, but then ran roughshod over the Texans defence in the third quarter. He accounted for 49 yards on the ground in the quarter, including consecutive bursts of 5 and 23 yards to set up New England's fourth touchdown, which gave the Patriots a 31-13 lead with 1 minute 25 seconds left in the third.
Ridley, who rushed for 1,263 yards this season, fourth best in team history, finished with 82 yards on 15 carries. That was eight fewer yards - and seven fewer carries - than his more celebrated counterpart, Houston's Arian Foster. His touchdown came in the opening drive of the third quarter, just when the Texans felt they might have some momentum. New England led by 17-13 at the half, then took the kickoff in the third quarter and marched 69 yards in seven plays.
Ridley capped the drive with the last two plays, rushes of 4 yards and then an 8-yard burst up the middle for the touchdown. He led the Patriots this season with 12 touchdowns, one more than Gronkowski.
The addition of an actual, productive running game this season has been one major change since Josh McDaniels took over as the attacking coordinator. Brady is still Brady; he has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 19 straight play-off games, one shy of the NFL record. He also became the leading playoff quarterback with his 17th victory. Joe Montana, Brady's idol while growing up in California, has 16.
The emphasis on the running game, however, produced 85 more rushing plays this season than last. The 151 first downs via the run were the second highest in team history. Ridley's season total was the highest since Corey Dillon set the franchise record of 1,635 in 2004. Ridley was the undisputed workhorse in the final five minutes of the game. Houston had pulled to 38-28 but could not recover an onside kick. The Patriots then worked the clock with Ridley carrying the ball. The Patriots settled for a field goal to close out the scoring.
The Patriots will host the Ravens on Sunday and will probably be without Gronkowski. The status of Woodhead, who started the game and was hurt on the first play, is unknown. But Ridley and Vereen will be back for another crack at the Super Bowl. They may not receive the attention of the marquee members of the offence, but they have shown this season that they can be every bit as critical. – New York Times Service