FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots set team records last season for first downs and yards gained.
Those marks may not last long.
After five games, the Tom Brady-led offense is on pace to break both of them and he’s getting plenty of help from a revived running game with a deep group of backs who combine power, speed and elusiveness.
That’s been evident in the past two games. The Patriots rushed for 251 yards in Sunday’ 31-21 win over the Denver Broncos one week after gaining 247 in a 52-28 victory over the Buffalo Bills.
“All our backs ran hard and were productive,” against the Broncos, coach Bill Belichick said. “We’re confident in all of them.”
The challenge figures to be tougher next Sunday when the Patriots visit the Seattle Seahawks, who have given up the fewest yards in the NFL, 258.6 per game. But the Patriots have gained the most, an average of 439.4, an increase of 11 yards over last year’s club record.
On Sunday, they set a team record with 35 first downs against the Broncos after picking up 33 in each of their previous two games. If they maintain their pace of 30.2 first downs a game, they’ll finish with 483, shattering the NFL record of 416 set last year by the New Orleans Saints and the club mark of 399.
The Patriots used a no-huddle attack for most of the first three quarters, making it tough for the Broncos to make substitutions and get in the proper positions.
“It takes a lot of concentration,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said. “You’ve got to have all 11 guys working at the same pace and you’ve got to make sure you’re doing your own job out there.”
They did on Sunday when running backs Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen followed outstanding blocking. They accomplished a rare feat — gaining more yards on the ground than Brady, with 223, did through the air.
It marked the first time since 1978 that the Patriots had consecutive games in which they rushed for at least 200 yards.
“We’re getting a lot of nickel defense,” Brady said. “When they put little guys out there (in the secondary), we have to take advantage of it. I think we’re playing definitely a more physical style and controlling the tempo of the game by running the football. We have to keep doing it. It’s only been five games.”
Against Denver, Ridley rushed for a career-high 151 yards, Bolden had 54 and Woodhead gained 47. The previous Sunday, Bolden led the team with 137 and one touchdown and Ridley added 106 yards and two touchdowns.
“A lot of people key on (Brady) and our running back group has to get some pressure off him so he can be the quarterback he can be,” Ridley said. “If they’re sitting back there staring Brady in the face every play, we can’t be a one-dimensional offense.”
The Patriots are averaging 165.4 yards rushing this season after picking up 110.3 per game last year when BenJarvus Green-Ellis, now with the Cincinnati Bengals, led them with 667 yards and Ridley was second with 441. Ridley already has 490 this year.
They’ve also improved in the red zone. In the first three games, they scored on 11 of 12 trips inside the 20-yard line with six touchdowns and five field goals. In the last two games, they’re 11 for 11 with nine touchdowns and two field goals.
And they’re getting better in third-down situations with more than 5 yards to go for a first down.
Brady hit Woodhead for a 25-yard gain on a third-and-14 that kept alive a drive that ended with a field goal that gave New England a 17-7 lead with two seconds left in the first half. Then Woodhead ran 19 yards on third-and-17 in the third quarter to help set up Brady’s 1-yard touchdown run that made the score 24-7.
“It’s hard to make those, but we were able to convert a few,” Belichick said. “You’d like to think you can make the third-and-one and third-and-twos, but the third-and-17s, those are little bit tougher.”
Brady has passed effectively but has thrown just eight touchdown passes with one interception. His ability to understand defenses and the best way to attack them remains exceptional.
“You can’t just throw it all day. You can’t just run it all day. You have to be able to do both,” Brady said. “It’s been pretty good the last few weeks.”