FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots rookie running back Sony Michel had earned a reputation for performing on the biggest stage at the University of Georgia. And in the biggest moment of the Patriots' season, he delivered a standout performance in a 41-28 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers in an AFC divisional-round playoff game.
Michel’s emergence couldn’t have come at a more important time, and the Patriots will need it again in next Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium (6:40 p.m. ET, CBS).
Keeping the ball away from Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes will be critical, and Michel -- who was supported by bone-crunching fullback James Develin, unsung blocking from tight end Rob Gronkowski and an offensive line determined to impose its will -- showed he can be relied upon to be a go-to guy in a playoff game.
"He had a great game, and he’s just had a great year. He’s just battled and fought hard," said quarterback Tom Brady. "I really love Sony as a person and his commitment to the team. He’s just been a lot of fun to be out there with, made a lot of hard yards. It’s great to see."
The 31st overall pick in the draft, Michel finished with 129 yards on 24 carries and three touchdowns. He became just the third player in the past 25 postseasons with three rushing touchdowns in the first half of a playoff game, joining Ricky Watters (1993) and LeGarrette Blount (2013).
Michel also became the only player in the past 25 postseasons with 100 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns in the first half of a playoff game. In 2018, only one player had 100 rushing yards and three touchdowns in a single half -- Saints running back Alvin Kamara, who was voted second-team All-Pro.
That’s impressive company to keep.
Fans who followed Michel at Georgia won’t be surprised, as the humble, soft-spoken 23-year-old was the offensive star of the Bulldogs’ double-overtime win over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl last year. He had 11 carries for 181 yards with three touchdowns in that game, along with four catches for 41 yards and a touchdown.
The Patriots’ willingness to stick with Michel on Sunday was notable, considering his first two attempts were both stopped for a loss of a yard.
But that didn’t deter offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who showed his brilliance as a playcaller. Once the ground game got going -- and running back James White (15 catches for 97 yards) showed his value as a pass-catcher against the Chargers’ zone defense -- it opened up a productive play-action passing game as Brady was seldom pressured even though the Chargers have some of the NFL's best pass-rushers. The Patriots controlled the clock, with a time-of-possession advantage of 38:20 to 21:40.
"That's the kind of football we want to play. We want to drive the ball. We want to keep the possession," Michel said. "Guys just stayed focused and kept executing."
A similar formula will ease the burden on Brady next Sunday in Kansas City, where the Chiefs’ defense has been a much better unit, feeding off the frenzied crowd.
For all of Brady’s brilliance over the years, the Patriots have also shown their willingness to turn to the run.
The past three instances of a running back totaling three rushing touchdowns and 125 yards in a playoff game have all been for the Patriots -- Michel on Sunday, and Blount twice. The only other time that happened over the past 20 seasons was when Ryan Grant accomplished the feat for the Green Bay Packers in the 2007 divisional round.
Michel’s presence allowed the Patriots to play Sunday's game on their terms -- attacking the Chargers' smaller defense with bigger offensive personnel and the running game -- and ultimately punch their ticket to what figures to be an entertaining AFC Championship Game on the road against the Chiefs.