Sports

Ground forces made the difference for Patriots

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — At the end of the Patriots’ loss last week to Baltimore, it appeared that the team had entirely forgotten about the handoff to Stevan Ridley. He was ignored, abandoned, with the Patriots concentrating their energy on the pass and on Danny Woodhead.

It didn’t work.

So the Patriots made the decision to emphasize the run in their next game, to get back to it. And with the Bills playing into that strategy Sunday — wanting the Patriots to stay on the ground — New England obliged.

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It worked.

Ridley and Brandon Bolden combined for 243 yards rushing and three touchdowns, the offense carried by 100-yard performances by each of the backs as the Patriots beat the Bills, 52-28, at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

“I think they were really challenging us to run the ball,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “They had some little guys on the field with our big personnel groupings. At that point you had to try to take advantage of it. You can’t just keep throwing it into heavy pass defense. So we ran it.”

It was the first time the Patriots have had two running backs rush for more than 100 yards each since Nov. 23, 1980, against the Baltimore Colts. Bolden led the attack with 137 yards on 16 carries and a touchdown, while Ridley added 106 yards on 22 rushes and two scores.

“To be honest with you, they whipped us,” Bills coach Chan Gailey said of New England’s running game. “Bottom line, they whipped us.”

Asked if he expected the Patriots to be able to run the ball, Gailey said, “No. Did not expect that at all.”

Proving Gailey and the Bills wrong took a commitment to the run, one that was hardly assured when the Patriots went down by two touchdowns early in the third quarter. They could have gone to the air. Instead, they ran on five of eight plays in the ensuing possession, gaining 52 of the 80 yards on the drive that cut the Buffalo lead to 7 points.

“We worked on it hard this week in practice, no doubt,” Ridley said. “That’s what we do in and out every week. We find what we messed up on, and we try to improve that. So as a team that’s what we knew we wanted to come in and do against Buffalo was run the football.”

It was a similar look to the first week of the season, when the Patriots got their other win of the year, against Tennessee. In that game, Ridley rushed for 125 yards and a touchdown, and the attack looked to have gained the balance it sometimes had lacked in other seasons.

The next two weeks? Not exactly. Ridley led the team against the Cardinals with 71 yards, and then against the Ravens with just 37.

“It was good to get your number called,” Ridley said. “It’s good that they leaned on the running backs this week. We went out there and just made plays when they called our number. That’s all we can do. When they call our number, we have to go out there and be the players that we are.”

And it wasn’t just Ridley. It was also Bolden, the rookie free agent who had just 15 yards and one touchdown in the first three games of the season, leading the team in rushing yards.

“It’s just like if y’all [the media] were to ask questions out there,” Bolden said. “Think about when you get that perfect answer — that’s how it feels. It just feels great. That’s what all that hard work and determination was for.”

And there was a lot of work on the running game last week. That was what the Patriots knew they needed to improve. So that’s what they focused on. That’s what they tried to make happen against the Bills.

“Our line, our tight ends, our backs, they all did a good job,” coach Bill Belichick said. “We were a little disappointed in our running production our last couple games. We really made a big emphasis this week.

“We worked hard on it in practice. We were able to have some good results today, so it was good to see that hard work pay off.”

There was a lot of praise for the job done by the offensive line, especially with Logan Mankins out. As Ridley put it, they did an “exceptional job.” They were the ones that opened the holes for Ridley and Bolden. They were the ones that allowed for success where there hadn’t been success the previous two weeks.

And so, with the yards gained and game won, Ridley noted a common thread in the games in which the Patriots have victories this year.

“I guess that’s two Ws the two weeks we’ve been doing that,” Ridley said. “If you want to call it the fix, then we’ll call it the fix.”

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