FOXBORO, Mass. — Rob Gronkowski is the most dangerous player in the New England Patriots offense that opposing defenses must gameplan to shut down each week, but the two players who kept the Tennessee Titans defense on its heels Saturday night at Gillette Stadium were running backs James White and Dion Lewis.
This duo represents two of the most versatile RBs in the NFL, and both of them played crucial roles in the Patriots advancing to their seventh consecutive AFC Championship Game with a 35-14 win over the Titans.
Lewis ran for 61 yards on 16 carries and caught nine passes for 79 yards, giving him a team-leading 140 total yards from scrimmage. White racked up 40 total yards and scored two touchdowns, one on the ground and one in the passing game.
“You just really got to pay attention to who’s out there,” White said. “We have a great group of running backs that can do a lot of different things. We’re just trying to put pressure (on opposing defenses).”
At one point in the second quarter, White had scored five of the Patriots’ last six playoff touchdowns going back to their historic Super Bowl XLI win over the Atlanta Falcons.
“It’s a one-game season,” White said. “Gotta make the most of your opportunities — it’s win or go home. Definitely just trying to play our best game.”
White scored the Patriots’ first two touchdowns after the Titans led 7-0 entering the second quarter, but it was Lewis who set up New England’s first score with a 31-yard reception that put his team into the red zone.
Lewis’ big gain was the catalyst for the Patriots scoring 21 unanswered points to end the first half, which basically ended any hope of the Titans pulling off a stunning upset.
“We started to play with a little faster pace, and I think that really helped us,” Lewis said. “Guys were just ready to play. The first two drives we started a little slow, but then we picked it up after that. We just had to settle into the game and have everyone calm down. Once everybody settled in, we knew what we had to do.”
As long as Lewis and White are healthy, this Patriots offense is going to be tough to stop. Even if the opposing defense is able to cover Gronkowski, Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola and other pass-catchers long enough, there’s always a chance one of these running backs can slip out of the backfield and turn a broken play into a huge gain downfield.
Lewis had a career-high 896 rushing yards during the regular season, while finishing with nine total touchdowns. White primarily was used as a receiver — 56 receptions for 429 yards and three touchdowns — but as we saw in last season’s Super Bowl, he’s capable of being the No. 1 option in the ground game, too.
The Patriots have an abundance of weapons on offense, but as we’ve seen in the playoffs of late, this unit runs at optimal effectiveness when Lewis and White are keeping defenses guessing with their ability to rack up tons of yards and make scoring plays both through the air and on the ground.
Versatility, which is the hallmark of White’s and Lewis’ skill sets, makes a huge difference in the postseason.