FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When tight end Rob Gronkowski wasn’t on the field for the first play of the New England Patriots’ victory over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, it was a statement of intention by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
In Gronkowski’s place was No. 2 tight end Dwayne Allen, who prides himself on being one of the most devastating blockers in the NFL at the position. Behind Allen was bulldozing fullback James Develin and fresh-legged rookie running back Sony Michel.
There haven’t been many times this season when the Patriots have subbed out Gronkowski for Allen, but they did it quite a bit on Sunday. This came on a day when they ran for 273 yards, their most in a game started by quarterback Tom Brady.
Perhaps this, with Brady and the passing offense struggling to generate consistent momentum and looking out of sorts, is a big part of the formula the Patriots must turn to in their hopes of making a deep playoff run.
Call it 2003 and 2004 Patriots-style football. Those were the years when a young Brady was still finding his way, and the Patriots relied more on hard-charging running from Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon and slippery-quick and clutch play from third-down back Kevin Faulk. The running game complemented a defense that could put the clamps down at times.
It was physical Patriots football back in those days, taking it to the opposition, just like they did Sunday against the Bills.
“Obviously, when we can do that, it’s going to make things a lot easier on everyone,” said Brady, who struggled for long stretches as a passer against the Bills. “The line really took the physical challenge to heart, and we outgained them by a bunch of yards in the run game. Whatever it takes on a week-to-week basis, I think that’s what we’ve got to do.”
The Patriots, who finished 3-5 on the road this season and are 7-0 at Gillette Stadium, seem to do those things better at home.
That’s why what unfolded Sunday in Philadelphia was so significant, with the Eagles rallying to beat the Texans and putting the Patriots back in control of the No. 2 playoff seed and a first-round playoff bye. If the Patriots beat the Jets at home on Sunday, they will clinch a first-round bye.
The rushing performance against the Bills was so decisive — especially on some outside runs, with how quickly the plays developed — that Bill Belichick said he and a reporter could have been aligned at center and guard, and the plays would have had success.
Other times, especially on a couple successful James White third-down runs, the approach was to keep it between the tackles.
“Especially this time of year, games are tough,” running back Rex Burkhead said. “You’ve got to really have that mindset that it’s going to be a physical game. This is when real football begins.”
Maybe this is the way it has to be for the Patriots going forward, with Brady looking un-Brady-like and the passing attack forced to evolve again after Josh Gordon’s indefinite NFL suspension.
The Allen-for-Gronkowski personnel swap was one example of the Patriots investing in that approach, with Allen this year’s version of run-grading tight end Daniel Graham, who played for the Patriots from 2002 to 2006.
It’s not that Gronkowski isn’t a good blocker, but Allen is almost like a sixth offensive lineman, which takes it to a higher level. When Allen is on the field, it’s often a statement that the Patriots want to grind it out, 2003-04 style.