Don't let the headline fool you. Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski will have a tremendous impact on the outcome of Super Bowl LIII. However, they are some of the greatest players to ever play their respective positions. It's only natural that they will have some effect on the most important game of the season.
Nonetheless, the Patriots backs may be the key to New England earning their sixth Lombardi trophy. And yes I said backs, instead of just running backs, because I would be remiss to not include fullback James Develin.
This group, including Develin, James White, Sony Michel, and Rex Burkhead has had monstrous production for the Patriots throughout 2018. They contributed to 39% of the Patriots total yards gained this year, and 32% of their total points. 2018 has seen the best performance by a New England backfield in recent memory.
Part of this has been due to health. Normally as the season goes along, the health of NFL teams decreases. With the Patriots, it has been the complete opposite. Sony Michel sat out nearly all of training camp with a knee injury and was rushed back to the playing field after the loss of Jeremy Hill. After missing a couple more games due to a minor knee injury suffered against Chicago, Michel has been a staple for the Patriots rushing attack. Rex Burkhead played in the Patriots first three games before being sidelined for weeks 4-12 with a head and neck injury. Since then his role in the Patriots offense has grown significantly. The Patriots increasing health in their backfield has led to them having a full stable of running backs throughout this postseason.
What is most impressive about the success of New England's backs in both the run and pass games is that it is less about distracting opponents and more about simply beating them straight up. FiveThirtyEight published a piece by Michael Salfino that highlighted just how obvious the Patriots plays have been.
According to Salfino, the Patriots ran the ball 75.9% of the time when Michel was on the field during the regular season. When White was on the field, they ran the football just 23.8% of the time. Those numbers have become even more extreme during the playoffs. Plays involving Michel have been runs 83.8% of the time, while 89.2% of White's snaps have been passes. Rex Burkhead is the lone outlier. During both the regular season and postseason, it has been roughly 55% pass-45% run when he is on the field.
What these numbers mean is that opposing teams basically knew what the Patriots were going to do simply based on their personnel. New England beat them regardless. They looked opposing teams in the eyes, told them exactly what they were going to do, then did it anyway. It wasn't a distraction or theatrics. It was simply one team being physically and mentally more dominant than others.
The Patriots backs have played no small part in this. Their talent, toughness, and versatility have been critical to the Patriots success. Despite what some in the Boston sports media may think, you can't just find "any running back" to do what New England's do. Michel has been one of the best Patriots rookies in years. His vision and acceleration are phenomenal. White has been arguably the team's best receiving back ever. Contrary to popular belief, he has also evolved into an effective runner as well. When healthy, Burkhead is a versatile player who provides the Patriots with multiple options.
And in the midst of all of that is James Develin. The Patriots fullback has been brilliant all season. The AFC Championship was basically a highlight film for the former Brown University player. He pushed the Chiefs linebackers around all night and powered the way to multiple New England touchdowns. Develin has quietly been one of the most underrated players in the entire National Football League.
This stable of running backs will be the key factor in a Patriots victory next weekend. Whether by deception or by straight up telling the Rams what they are going to do, New England's backs will need to be a major part of the Patriots offensive gameplan. Los Angeles will need to find a way to stop all of them.
If the Patriots can run the ball like they have been and control the tempo of the game, they should have no problem. Michel could just find himself leaving Atlanta as the Super Bowl MVP. Or it could be White, who almost beat out Tom Brady for that honor two years ago in Houston.
Or maybe, just maybe, James Develin will hoist the Super Bowl MVP trophy at the end of the night and all will be right in the world.