Three games into the season, the New England Patriots stand where most sane football followers expected, at 2-1.
They average 29 points a game, in spite of Cam Newton’s two total touchdown passes and pedestrian 89.7 passer rating.
After dispatching the weary, battered but previously unbeaten Vegas Raiders, 36-20, there is a swagger building in these parts, the kind that has to have Bill Belichick smiling under the mask. At 68, the coach has to feel like a kid again, having brought us all back to the 1970s with this run-first attack.
Two wins on their home turf have churned up 5.8 yards a carry -- a whopping 467 yards total on 80 carries — and the Patriots know it.
“We have so many different ways to beat you,” said Newton, following up his 397-yard morale victory through the air at Seattle with a 162-yard effort on 17 of 28 passes Sunday.
New England crushed it in the trenches, sliding guard Joe Thuney over to center and filling the gap next door with rookie Michael Onwenu. Remember this is a front that’s already without right tackle Marcus Cannon, who opted out in 2020.
Still, they punished the Raiders for their efforts, coming East on short rest.
“There were some moving parts there … As the game went along, and I’d say as the week went along, there with some things, that through repetition and seeing things a second time (were handled),” beamed Belichick after the game. “For the most part we got a hat on a hat, got everybody blocked, and then we were able to make some positive yards. And when we were able to get through the line of scrimmage, the backs added some yards on their own.”
The backs. You remember them, especially 2018 first-round pick Sony Michel.
Fans were at their wits end recently with Sony, who seemed quite content, taking what his line would give him in a 17-carry, 56-yard fortnight to open the year.
Perhaps he and all the backs, as they stated afterward, were running with the purpose for their teammate James White, who lost his father a week ago and remains away from the team with his mother, fighting for her own life.
“We just came together, and we played hard,” said Michel. “That’s what James White would do.”
Maybe, it was a simple warning. Damien Harris and his dinged up pinky are eligible to come off the injured list this week. His good health and White’s return from family time would certainly chip into the touches for Michel, Rex Burkhead and rookie J.J. Taylor.
These guys -- all three -- performed Sunday as if their jobs hung in the balance.
“I thought the backs ran well. They made a lot of yards with their running,” said Belichick. “Those guys got what was there, and they got more on their own.”
Michel finished with a game-high 117 yards on nine rushes, including bursts of 48 and 38 yards.
What Michel did to Raiders’ safety Johnathan Abram on Sunday, leaving the Vegas second-year man in his wake repeatedly. Michel ripped through the Mississippi State product’s grasped on a pair of plays then made him miss three other times.
This was serious SEC on SEC crime from the ex-Georgia great.
“That’s our goal. Coaches say it all the time. In order to win games in this league, you’ve got to be able to run the football,” said Michel.
Just a side note for Abram, who did have two tackles to go with his myriad of misses. You might want to call in sick for Monday morning’s film session.
Burkhead clearly turned in one of his most impactful performances as a Patriots, running for two scores and disappearing on a screen for an 11-yard TD catch.
In all, he ran six times for 49 yards and caught seven balls for 49 more.
“Coming in after a tough loss last weekend against Seattle, you’re just looking to bounce back as a team,” said Burkhead, noting the first step to that was simple. “Establish the run game.”
Even Taylor had a say with 43 more yards, darting and dodging the Raiders, who seemed to be a step behind all afternoon.
“We fed off each other. It always helps us out,” said Burkhead. “Today, establishing the run up front like we did, certainly makes it easier.”
This Belichick-Josh McDaniels affinity for the run certainly presents an interesting proposition as next week’s trip to defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City looms.
The best, and potentially only, way to stop Patrick Mahomes has been to keep him on the sidelines.
Few, if any, have found the way to shorten the game, and do that.
Don’t try telling that to the Patriots, though.
Not the way they have proven they can run the football twice in three weeks.