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ON FOOTBALL

Ground control sends out a message

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Patriots didn't run the ball well last night, but they did the next-best thing. They ran it often.

The Patriots came out clearly intending to pound the football and dominate the clock, and they did in the first half of their 31-21 victory over the sad-sack New York Jets at Giants Stadium. They piled up 101 yards rushing by halftime and controlled the ball for 23 minutes and 34 seconds. This meant their defense was well-rested every time it went on the field, and that had more than a little to do with why the Jets were not even able to muster a single first down during that half.

New England's running game was not a sleek Jaguar roaring down the highway; it was a rattling, rumbling road grader that lacked flash and dash but not lumbering power.

The running game did not average much (3 yards a crack), but that was less important than what it accomplished, which was to consistently keep the offense in short-yardage situations and the defense on the sideline. This will be of far more import in two weeks when the Patriots start the playoffs back in Foxborough.

What the Patriots accomplished in the running game last night was twofold. First, their grinding success gave the offensive line reason to believe it can open holes when given enough opportunities, and they gave opposing teams something more to think about in the postseason than Tom Brady dropping back and flinging footballs for three hours. That doesn't mean Brady won't do just that anyway when the time comes, but it is considerably easier to do if there is at least some reason for defenses to believe the Patriots might try to run the ball as well.

New England continued in the same vein in the third quarter, rushing the ball nine times for 26 yards on a 15-play scoring drive to open the second half. Corey Dillon carried eight of those times, averaging a meager 2.9 yards but establishing that he can still bull people around when he gets his shoulders square to the line.

He also showed that he continues to have a nose for the end zone as long as there aren't too many yards between the line of scrimmage and the goal line, which is something that takes on added importance in the postseason, when the yards are harder to come by and require a hard-nosed runner to get them.

By the end of the third quarter, Dillon had 77 yards on 26 carries (only 3 yards a rush) and was given the rest of the night off. But he also had two 1-yard touchdown runs. He used his power, timing, and experience to pick his way into the end zone on the first run and lowered his shoulder and boomed his way in on the second.

Dillon may not be what he was a year ago, but as he showed last night, he's still a punishing runner in short-yardage situations and a smart runner in all situations.

There is a belief among many old NFL hands that it is not your average per run that matters as much as your ability to pound away, chewing up the clock and the defense until late in the game. That is often when backs like Dillon or Kevin Faulk can suddenly break away from tiring tacklers and turn a night of short runs into one glorious, explosive moment. That didn't happen last night, but at least there was a glimpse of a running game again, and to be able to say that, even against the Jets, was to give future opponents something more to worry about.

This gradual improvement has been going on for more than a month after a limping start in which New England rushed for more than 100 yards only once in its first nine games. Since then, the Patriots have gained more than 100 yards on the ground four times in six weeks and in three of the past four games.

Admittedly, this came twice at the expense of the Jets (twice) as well as the 3-12 New Orleans Saints and the 4-11 Buffalo Bills, so enthusiasm must be tempered, because the Patriots were stuffed by the one solid run defense they've faced in the last month, Tampa Bay's (83 yards, 2.6 per rush).

Yet even in that game, they rushed the ball 32 times, which allowed them to keep their offense balanced even if the bulk of their yardage and points came through the air against one of the league's most porous pass defenses.

Whether New England can run the ball as effectively against tougher defenses like those of the Steelers or Jaguars in the postseason remains to be seen. But last night, for the fourth game in a row, they rushed it more than 30 times and used that grinding running game -- more reminiscent of Antowain Smith than Corey Dillon -- to beat down the Jets' defense and remind opponents yet to come that they are no longer as one-dimensional as they were when the leaves were beginning to turn.

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