First downs in focus

A number of figures suggest the Patriots' offense was the best in the NFL during the 2012 regular season, and debate has ensued as to how it stacks up against the record-setting group of 2007.

That conversation is fluid, as both are/were excellent, but one area that the 2012 version holds an edge is in total first downs, as the Patriots shattered the NFL record for first downs in a single season with 444, 28 more than the record set by the Saints in 2011 and 45 more than the 2007 Patriots.

The Patriots have operated at a fast pace for much of 2012, which has led to more plays run and in turn more opportunities to convert first downs. But they also led the NFL in third-down conversion percentage (by a long shot) and were undeniably the best team at moving the chains.

While the first down success was a team effort, with much credit due to the offensive line and quarterback Tom Brady, three players produced particularly noteworthy seasons relating to first downs earned:

* Running back Stevan Ridley. Ridley finished third in the NFL with 82 rushing first downs, which means that 28.3 percent of his 290 carries resulted in moving the chains. That's an incredibly high total for any running back, and a testament to his development in his second season (for comparison: Adrian Peterson converted 24.4 percent of his carries into first downs, Arian Foster 22.2 percent).

* Wide receiver Wes Welker. The NFL's second-leading receiver in terms of catches and leader in yards after the catch was another first-down machine for the Patriots, moving the chains on 72 of 118 catches (sixth most in the NFL). He continues to prove himself to be the best slot receiver in football.

* Tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronk’s total of 45 first downs was tied for 26th in the NFL, but he was limited to just 11 games played. If his numbers were stretched over a 16-game season, he would project to have finished with 66 first downs, which would have placed him just behind Welker for seventh-best in the NFL.