The New England Patriots will play in the AFC Championship Game again, which is a statement that feels so ordinary and so plain now. Their greatest accomplishment in an era led by head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady is that they’ve made continued dominance seem routine.
We’ve reached the point where an AFC title game without the Patriots would feel utterly surreal. After pancaking the Tennessee Titans 35-14 on Saturday, the Patriots will appear in their seventh consecutive conference title game.
In a league where the margin for error is minuscule, the Patriots have, at worst, given themselves a shot at another ring in seven straight years. That alone is incredible, and now they have an opportunity to add a sixth championship—and third over the past four years—as their offense grows deeper and more dynamic each passing week.
It’s a unit led by a 40-year-old quarterback who’s an MVP contender, and has already thrown the third most regular-season touchdown passes among QBs his age or older. The Patriots can ride Brady’s arm, and they’ll do that happily.
But what’s added an extra gallon or two of nightmare fuel to the Patriots offense is that Brady doesn’t have to be the hero all the time. No, that title can belong to running back and all-purpose fireball Dion Lewis.
His rapidly emerging presence throughout the second half of the season and now into the playoffs has changed the character of the Patriots offense, and added a few more sticks of dynamite. He’s become the catalyst, and his explosive chunk plays keep rocking defenses.
Just ask the Titans. Lewis finished with 141 yards from scrimmage in a game that felt over by halftime.
His performance in the divisional round wasn’t some sudden flash soon to be followed by a fizzle. Dating back to the end of the regular season it was Lewis’ third straight game with 130-plus yards from scrimmage.
Before Saturday’s game reached laugher territory Lewis had a 31-yard reception to set up the Patriots’ first touchdown. On that drive he sprinted and juked his way to 56 yards from scrimmage, and in the second quarter alone the 27-year-old went on to record 82 total yards.
This is probably a good time to remember that Lewis offers supersized strength in a small-fry package. He’s only 5’8” and 195 pounds, but heaving any defender in his path always seems possible.
Often enough it is possible too, and ends in both physical and pride-based wounds.
Lewis either powers through contact or deftly swerves around it, leaving sprawled would-be tacklers in his wake.
He had 68 yards after contact against the Bills in Week 16, according to Pro Football Focus. Then he repeated that act of creating yardage on his own when it mattered most, reeling off 58 YAC in just the first half against the Titans, again per PFF.
Lewis became a launching point for the Patriots offense as his role grew beyond just being a gadget or passing-down weapon. As the Ringer’s Danny Kelly recently noted, over the final six weeks of the regular season Lewis posted eight runs for 15-plus yards, which was second only to the Raiders’ Marshawn Lynch over that stretch.
He’s the lit fuse for an offense that already had its cornerstone in Brady, and closer in tight end Rob Gronkowski. It was Lewis who caught the long pass to kick off a 21-point second quarter that eventually propelled New England past the Titans. And it was Lewis who had crossed the century mark in total production by just halftime, meaning the Patriots’ chances of winning were already looking pretty damn good.
Lewis and fellow running back James White combined to produce 108 receiving yards and a touchdown through the air out of the Patriots’ backfield Saturday. A repeat performance, and an emphasis on screens and short passes, could place a heavy hammer in the Patriots’ hand again during the conference championship regardless of the opponent.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars have swarming defenses, particularly up front with their lethal pass rushes. But they’ve both been vulnerable to some extent against pass-catching running backs, according to Football Outsiders, allowing an average of 40-plus receiving yards per game to the position in 2017. The Steelers, who are the other AFC heavyweight, were especially poor in that area while giving up 47.4 receiving yards per game to running backs.
Lewis can keep being the jab in the Patriots’ offense then, while Brady (337 passing yards against the Titans with three touchdowns) and Gronkowski (six receptions, 81 yards and a touchdown) combine to be the firm, overpowering uppercut.
Put it all together, and we see the image of an offense and a team peaking at the right time, one game away from playing for a championship. It’s an all-too familiar picture, and one we’ve seen for seven straight years now.