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What Can the Pats Do to Get Back to the Super Bowl?

Who are the Patriots? Are they the NFL’s biggest offensive bullies while being one of its puniest runts on defense? Do they have what it takes to make another legitimate run at the Super Bowl? They are 6-3, though it somehow feels like their record is much worse this season. I suppose I still haven’t shaken fleeting images of the team’s 3-3 start, when it lost embarrassing matches to the Cardinals, Ravens and Seahawks. Outside of blowout wins against the Rams in jolly old England and against the Bills earlier this season none of the Pats’ wins has instilled great confidence. So what does their schedule look like going forward, and what do they have to do to get themselves back to the promised land?

The Patriots have already addressed a big issue that has haunted them since the Corey Dillon days: they can finally (kind of) run the ball. It’s amazing that they’ve never really tried to build a running game before; pounding the ball and controlling the clock is a crucial element for teams with suspect defenses. Take the New Orleans Saints of several years ago, for example. They were known primarily as a high-flying offensive team, but they were also among the league leaders in rushing. They didn’t necessarily need more ways to move the ball and score points, but their defense did; you can’t expect your secondary to hold up for the entirety of a game if they’re rushing back onto the field after only a few minutes of offensive possession.

The Patriots newfound running success is thanks largely to RB Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, too unheralded backs who have complemented each other nicely. Ridley has rushed for 814 yards on 172 attempts, averaging a healthy 4.7 yards per rush while scoring six touchdowns. Vereen, meanwhile, is more of a power back, and has scored two TDs himself.

“I think the coaches did a great job this offseason making that a point of emphasis for our offense, to make sure we get this running game going and stick with it. That’s what [coordinator] Josh [McDaniels] has been doing,” receiver Deion Branch said after the Patriots’ game against the Rams.

“Overall, that was something we were lacking last year. The thing is, when something is working well, you stick with it. Even though we were throwing the ball all over the place [in 2011], as a team we still wanted to run the ball. We just took advantage of whatever the teams gave us. I think this year, more of a point of emphasis was to be a little more balanced than last year. I think our pass-run ratio was high pass, less run. I think if you want to be an effective team in November, December, January and February, you have to be more balanced. I think that’s what is helping us out. As a receiver, we always want to catch the ball, but I think to be a complete team, you have to be able to run the ball.”

There’s no doubt that the Pats are running the ball better than they used to. However, they’re also stopping it better. The Pats are currently ranked 9th against the run, but a lot o that may be due to how bad they are against the pass (ranked 29th). Teams don’t run it on the Pats because they don’t have to. They can simply throw it all over the Patriots weak secondary until the cows come home. However, if the Patriots want to make another serious push into the playoffs, they simply must improve their pass defense. They have found themselves in far too many shootouts this year, even with the likes of the lowly Buffalo Bills, who they beat narrowly by a score of 37-31 on Sunday. That’s not going to cut it against the AFC’s best, and if the Pats want to be considered one of those teams, they must shore up the back end.

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