Sony Michel emerges as X-factor for Patriots’ playoff push

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Running back James White was asked about the skill set of the player who happened to be eavesdropping and who may just be the X-factor for the New England Patriots down the stretch.

“I’m trying to be like Sweet Feet,” rookie running back Sony Michel said over White’s shoulder, a smile stretched across his face, one locker to the left.

Sweet Feet is White’s nickname. Michel may already be on the verge of something even better.

In Sunday’s 27-13 victory against the New York Jets, it was Michel – not Tom Brady nor  Rob Gronkowski – who carried the load and sealed the game. He ran for 133 yards, the most rushing yards by a Patriot since Jonas Gray earned 201 in Week 11 of 2014, and one touchdown on 21 carries. When Michel left the game in the third quarter with an injury, the offense stagnated. When he returned, the unit dominated.

“That’s just us being able to play Patriot football,” Michel said. “We want to be physical. And when you’re physical, you can run the ball, you can throw the ball. It’s almost like you can control the line of scrimmage and do what you want to do.”

Michel’s speed and power – the main reasons why the Patriots selected him No. 31 overall in the first round of the draft – were on display. And that his production came after the Pats posted a season-low 40 rushing yards in a Week 10 loss against the Titans is a positive sign for New England (8-3).

“In the Tennessee game, we didn’t get the run game going at all,” White said. “It was an emphasis. Everybody looked at themselves in the mirror during the bye week and said they wanted to get the run game going. Offensive line did a great job, receivers, tight ends, and Sony was getting downhill.

Against the Jets, the Patriots ran for 215 yards, also the franchise’s most since 2014. And though Michel may be emerging as a workhorse back for New England, White is also a pivotal weapon who thrives catch passes out of the backfield. He had 10 touches for 78 total yards.

And with three of the Patriots’ final five opponents ranking in the top 10 in rushing defense (Vikings, fifth with 94.8 yards a game; Steelers, eighth with 99.6; Bills, ninth with 99.8), how Michel performs in this final stretch of the regular season could determine whether or not the Patriots can claim home-field advantage in the AFC.

New England currently trails the Chiefs (9-2) and the Steelers (7-2-1) in the playoff bracket.

“We have some different characteristics, but he can do some of the same stuff that I do,” White told USA TODAY Sports of Michel. “Defenses just have to pay attention to who’s in the football game. We just try to go out there and do our job and make plays when they present themselves.”

It doesn’t hurt that New England is finally getting healthy.

Michel had been dealing with a knee injury, but appears closer to full form. Right guard Shaq Mason (hand) and tight end Rob Gronkowski (ankle, back) – both of whom are essential in run blocking – made their returns against the Jets.

Fellow running back Rex Burkhead (neck) is eligible to return next week against the Vikings after he was placed on injured reserve earlier in the year, so the Patriots could have additional resources in the ground game.

Still, players stressed that the Patriots strive to play complementary football – even if the run-pass splits don’t show it.

The Patriots now must fix self-inflicted errors that could cost them late in the year. Against New York, they committed 11 penalties for 105 yards – many of them killing drives.

“There’s games where we might go in and throw the ball a lot more for different reasons and when it turns into that game, we’ve got to take advantage of it when we get our chances,” center David Andrews told USA TODAY Sports. “But it all starts up front. When you run the ball, you open up play action. Running the ball can die down the pass rush. Running the ball can put you in favorable third-down situations, where you’re not playing for third-and-nine and people are teeing off on you. It all starts up front and it always will.”

Follow Lorenzo Reyes on Twitter @LorenzoGReyes.

Source : https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/patriots/2018/11/25/new-england-patriots-sony-michel-new-york-jets/2110274002/