EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New England Patriots are widely viewed as a contender because of the presence of head coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski -- three of the best ever at what they do.
But the key for the 2018 Patriots to achieve their championship hopes just might be rookie running back Sony Michel.
The first-round draft choice from Georgia, No. 31 overall, was the best player on the field in the Patriots’ 27-13 victory over the New York Jets. His 133 rushing yards were the most by a Patriots player since Jonas Gray totaled 201 in the 2014 season.
“Coach kind of gave us a challenge this week, on being able to run the football – consistently,” Michel said.
Belichick’s challenge reflected how when Michel gets going on the ground, it takes the burden off Brady, Gronkowski, receiver Julian Edelman and others in the passing game.
Simply put, he settles things down.
Michel’s breakthrough was among the best news for the Patriots from Sunday’s win, which wasn’t as decisive of an overall performance as they hoped to deliver coming off their bye -- red-zone struggles on offense, in particular, were notable.
But proving they can successfully turn to the running game -- especially as the weather in the Northeast is getting colder and adverse weather conditions are a more likely possibility -- is an important ingredient for most teams with championship hopes.
“Any time you can run the ball like we did, it helps a lot of things. You have to play the run, play-action [passes], and we had some chunks [of big plays],” Brady said.
“It always opens up everything else. It keeps you out of those long-yardage situations, which we have been in the last couple weeks,” echoed Belichick.
The Patriots topped 200 yards rushing as a team to improve to 8-3, keeping pace with the AFC’s top seed, the 9-2 Chiefs. The Steelers (7-3-1) and Texans (7-3) are also in the mix.
Even better for the Patriots: Michel should have some company in the offensive backfield next Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings with the projected return of Rex Burkhead from the injured-reserve list. That is the first game in which Burkhead (concussion) is eligible to return.
Michel should still assume the lead role, but the Patriots project to mix Burkhead in every third series or so. The team also has an effective two-running-back package with Burkhead and James White that opens up more possibilities.
The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Michel combines power and speed that challenges opposing defenses in multiple ways, and his offensive linemen rave about his vision.
“He finds it and hits it hard. That’s one thing I can say about him – he’s fun to block for,” right guard Shaq Mason said. “He’s a very talented guy. We’re lucky to have him.”
For a brief time in the third quarter Sunday, the Patriots had to play without Michel when he left the game with an apparent back injury after taking a shot on a short-yardage carry. It doesn’t seem like a long-range concern, however.
“It’s football, we all get tweaked up out there playing. But I’m back out there playing and everything went smooth,” he said.
Indeed, Michel ultimately returned, and in no surprise, that coincided with the Patriots ultimately seizing control of the game.
“That’s just us being able to play Patriot football,” Michel said. “We want to be physical. When you’re physical, you can run the ball, you can throw the ball. It’s almost like you control the line of scrimmage and do what you want to do.”