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Will Stevan Ridley stay in Bill Belichick's doghouse?

Can the New England Patriots continue to sit their best running back?

Deactivated last week against the Houston Texans, Stevan Ridley is no sure bet to play Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. After fumbling in a league-leading three straight games, Ridley has lost the confidence of coach Bill Belichick, who leaned on a combination of Shane Vereen and LeGarrette Blount in Week 13.

ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss posited this week that "the days of Ridley as the lead back, logging 45 percent of the offensive snaps, are probably over."

If so, that's a risky play. Ridley's ball-control problems trail back to before this season, but he also leads the NFL in rushing touchdowns since Week 6.

Pro Football Focus ranks him as the 11th most elusive back in football, and his 57.6 yards per game leads the team. New England -- with Vereen, Blount and Brandon Bolden -- boast one of the league's deeper stable of backs, but Ridley is the best pure runner of the bunch. Lesser teams would have no choice but to put him on the field.

New England's 88 yards on the ground against Houston marked the team's third-lowest output of the year. Granted, they played from behind and leaned on Tom Brady's 365 yards through the air, but Ridley's absence was felt.

As in year's past, New England's offense is heating up at the right time. The return of Rob Gronkowski and the reliable play of Julian Edelman have the Patriots shredding teams through the air.

Still, there's going to come a time down the stretch when the ground game will be asked to guide this team out of a dark corner. That's playoff football. With the AFC ripe for the picking, Belichick's decision to sit his best back -- if it's a final one -- might come back to haunt this team when it matters most.

The latest "Around The League Podcast" debates the Seahawks' Super Bowl chances and asks "Who do you trust?" as the playoffs approach.

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