FOXBOROUGH — With the Patriots salting away the final 3 minutes, 42 seconds of a 31-21 win over the Broncos on Sunday, Stevan Ridley wasn’t on the field, capping a career day with a few more clock-killing first downs, as a featured back typically would.
Ridley was on the sideline, helmet off, silently stewing over the fumble he lost on the previous possession, which kept Denver’s dim comeback light flickering for a few more snaps.
Those hopes were extinguished when the Patriots forced a fumble from Willis McGahee, but it was Ridley’s turnover that soured a day unlike any the second-year running back has had in the NFL, at least numbers-wise.
For the second straight week, and third time in five games this season, Ridley topped 100 rushing yards, gaining a career-high 151. His 28 carries were also the most he’s had as a Patriot, and he scored a third-quarter touchdown that helped give New England a 31-7 lead.
There was plenty to like about Ridley’s night, but also one miscue, which he had a hard time forgetting after the game. In fact, he kept bringing it up.
“The fumble at the end, that kills me. That’s my low of the night,’’ Ridley said. “I don’t want to take anything from my offensive line, they did a tremendous job up front, but me as an individual, I have to improve on holding on to that football in the fourth quarter. Can’t feel sorry for yourself, just have to improve and focus.’’
Ridley’s emergence has provided the Patriots the kind of offensive balance that’s allowed them to win games. In their three victories, the Patriots have rushed for 162, 247, and now 251 yards. The back-to-back 200-yard games mark the first time the Patriots have done that since December 1978.
In their two losses, the Patriots have failed to rush for 100 yards: 90 against Arizona, and 77 at Baltimore.
“Any offense is better when it’s balanced,’’ Ridley said. “We’re just trying to take as much pressure off [quarterback] Tom [Brady] and the receivers. When Tom’s back there, who isn’t looking at Tom? It’s our job to go out and run the football.’’
It hasn’t all been Ridley; Brandon Bolden gave the Patriots a pair of 100-yard rushers at Buffalo last week, and Danny Woodhead added a season-high 47 yards against the Broncos.
“We’re getting a lot of nickel defense,’’ Brady said. “When they put little guys out there, we have to take advantage of it. I think we’re playing definitely a more physical style and controlling the tempo of the game by running the football. We have to keep doing it.’’
Ridley, with 102 carries for 490 yards through five games, has already eclipsed his rushes (87) and yards (441) from his rookie season. But ball-control problems — he also lost a fumble last season against the Broncos in the playoffs, which led to his being benched for the AFC Championship game — can impact outcomes if they come at the wrong time. What upset Ridley the most is that he knew what the Broncos, who trailed by 10 points with less than six minutes left, would be trying to do on defense.
“I told myself before the play I’ve got to hold on to the football,’’ said Ridley, who was hit by Von Miller and lost the ball, which was recovered by Mike Adams. “You can’t make any excuses. I messed up. I’m sure Coach [Bill Belichick] will have something to say about it.’’
“Every player is responsible for taking care of the ball, whoever it is. That’s always No. 1,’’ Belichick said. “Stevan ran hard. I think all our backs ran hard and were productive. We’re confident in all of them.’’
That confidence should be building. A team that has done most of its damage over the years through the air is finding ways to move the ball on the ground, and it’s played a key role in all five results this season. When the Patriots have rushed it well, they’ve won. When they haven’t, they’ve lost.
“Last week we emphasized the run, this week we emphasized the run, and the offensive line is getting good push up front, so we’re just hitting the holes that are there and trying to get downhill and make yards fast,’’ Ridley said. “It didn’t end the way I wanted it to, but besides that, I’m just thankful to be out there.
“Some things are going in my favor, some things aren’t. I just have to come in on Monday and get back to work. That’s the only way they do it around here. That’s the team way.’’