Already the league's most prolific offense in terms of scoring and yardage, the unit is designed to create problems for opponents in the postseason. From the flawless execution of a quick-rhythm passing game to the solid construction of a power-based rush attack, the Patriots have all of the components needed to thrive against any defense.
1) Tom Brady is playing at an MVP level.
Brady seems like a contender to win the league's highest individual honor every year, based on his consistent performance. He certainly is deserving of the award again this year, given his remarkable numbers. Brady has compiled a 102.6 passer rating while completing 64.8 percent of his passes with 25 touchdowns against just four interceptions. Most impressively, he has seven 300-yard games and has tossed at least two touchdowns in eight of the Patriots' 12 contests.
Although we have come to expect that kind of production from the three-time Super Bowl champ, the fact that he has been able to thrive without several of his primary weapons in the passing game is a testament to his spectacular play this season. Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman have each missed games, yet Brady has found a way to remain productive by altering his approach to fit on the personnel available to him each week. When I studied the All-22 tape of the Patriots from early in the season, I marveled at Brady's capacity to shift his primary focus when Gronkowski and Hernandez were not on the field. In those games, Brady routinely featured Welker as the No. 1 receiver, while relying on Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead to make plays on the perimeter. Woodhead, in particular, assumes a bigger role in the passing game when Gronkowski and Hernandez are on the sideline. He will routinely sneak out of the backfield on delayed screens, swings or angle routes to capitalize on his quickness, burst and elusiveness in space.
With Brady willing to utilize the Patriots' complementary players in key situations, opponents have found it more difficult to slow down New England's explosive attack.
2) Nobody exploits the middle of the field like the Pats.
The Patriots' offense has been the most explosive unit in the NFL for the past few years, despite lacking a dynamic weapon on the outside since the departure of Randy Moss. To compensate for that deficiency, the Pats have extensively worked the middle of the field, exploiting matchups against linebackers and nickel corners. The majority of No. 1 corners in the NFL lack the versatility and skill to play in the slot; thus, the decision to have Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez primarily run routes between the numbers allows New England to avoid the opponent's top pass defender most of the time.
In breaking down New England's passing game on the All-22 Coaches Film, it's apparent that the Patriots routinely configure their offensive sets to place their best players in the slot. This pits the Pats' top playmakers against inferior defenders, creating big-play opportunities in the passing game.
In the screengrab below from New England's 59-24 demolition of the Indianapolis Colts, the Patriots are aligned in an ace wing formation with Gronkowski and Visanthe Shiancoe positioned on the right:
At the snap, the duo runs a pair of vertical routes, with Gronkowski running down the hash and Shiancoe racing down the boundary:
This mismatch results in a 36-yard gain.
In the next screengrab, the Patriots are aligned in an empty formation, with Welker and Gronkowski in the slot:
At the snap, Gronkowski will execute a stick route to run away from the defender in the slot:
The Colts are unable to double cover or bracket Gronkowski due to the formation, and Brady easily connects with his top target for a 31-yard gain.
The Seahawks are in a three-deep coverage, with the linebackers playing at intermediate depth. Welker is running a seam route down the numbers, past the dropping linebackers:
The result? A 46-yard touchdown.
3) Stevan Ridley's emergence makes the running game scary good.
The Patriots have quietly put together a powerful rushing attack, with Ridley leading the way. The second-year pro has rushed for 1,010 yards on 225 attempts with nine touchdowns. Most importantly, he has posted three 100-yard games and amassed 20-plus carries five times this season.
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Those numbers are significant, not only because they place Ridley among the league's leading rushers, but also because they are indicative of the Patriots' return to the offensive formula they used to claim three Super Bowl titles in the early 2000s. During that period, the Patriots relied on a mixture of a power-running game and a "dink and dunk" passing attack to control the ball and grind out victories.
While Ridley isn't necessarily Antowain Smith or Corey Dillon, he is a big, physical runner with outstanding instincts, vision and power. He excels at picking up tough yards between the tackles and his ability to consistently gain positive yardage keeps the Patriots' offense on schedule.
When I broke down the All-22 footage, I noticed that the Patriots take advantage of Ridley's skills by routinely running the power out of a variety of formations.
In the screengrab below from the Pats' 45-7 shellacking of the St. Louis Rams, New England is running the power out of a tight I-wing formation with Ridley at tailback:
Ridley takes a counter step to the left before heading right to take the handoff. The Patriots are executing a double team on the three-technique, with the backside guard pulling to the right. The fullback is also leading to the right:
This play resulted in a 30-yard gain.
With Ridley adding balance to an already explosive offense, the Patriots have the ability to close out games with a physical running attack. That element was missing a season ago -- when they came up just short against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI -- and it could be the difference in a title run this year.