FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The last time James White faced the New York Jets, he set a career high for rushing yards in a game.
That game also marked the start of a stretch in which the ground attack has taken on added importance for White’s New England Patriots, who bring a 10-5 record into Sunday’s game at Gillette Stadium against the Jets (4-11).
“That game, the offensive line did a great job blocking and we had a lot of success in the running game,” White, generally the Patriots’ third-down back and better known for his receiving skills, said Wednesday. “But we can’t expect for it to be like that coming into the second time. They’re going to come in being ready to stop the run,”
In the Nov. 25 game at MetLife Stadium, a 27-13 Patriots victory, White carried nine times for 73 of the team’s 215 rushing yards, including a 24-yard run late in the fourth quarter to secure the win. Prior to that, the fifth-year veteran from Wisconsin had carried for 40 or more yards only three times in his career: twice earlier this season and in the Patriots’ 41-33 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl last February.
White’s role in the offense expanded considerably this year, and he enters the regular-season finale with career-high totals in both rushing (90 carries for 395 yards) and receiving (712 yards on 83 receptions, both franchise records).
Concurrently, the Patriots’ passing offense has struggled in recent weeks, including a season-low 117 yards last week in a 24-12 win over the Buffalo Bills. They compensated by rushing for a season-best 273 yards, White accounting for 41 on eight carries.
The team’s rushing average, 127.1 yards per game over the season, has blossomed to 164.2 yards over the last five games. Rookie Sony Michel leads with 881 yards on 195 carries.
“It’s a team effort,” White said. “Good play calling, the offensive line’s doing a great job blocking, and (fullback) James Develin, the tight ends, Gronk (Rob Gronkowski) and Dwayne (Allen) and (Jacob) Hollister has been in there. And the receivers. Being able to run the football is a team effort, and not just about the running backs. It takes everybody in order for us to have success.”
The need for increased productivity on the ground has raised questions whether the Patriots, who still have a chance to gain the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, have yet to find their true identity.
“I think we have our identity,” White said. “I think we just haven’t played our best. We know what we’re capable of and we know what we need to do each week. Our coaches have us prepared, but we’ve just got to go out there and do it, and execute for four quarters.”
A victory over the Jets can clinch the No. 2 seed for the Patriots and a first-round playoff bye. With help from losses by Kansas City to Oakland and the Los Angeles Chargers to Denver, the Patriots could earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
“We’re just focusing on this week right now and we’re not focusing on the playoffs,” White said. “We’re treating this game like a playoff game, because that’s pretty much what it is. It’s always tough when we play these guys.”