Pats' run game the key to victory

Stevan Ridley performed well this season in a starting role for the New England Patriots. Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots' running game may be the key to a victory in Sunday's AFC Championship Game. And yet, despite what you may have heard, it isn't really that much better than it has been in other recent seasons -- there's just more of it.

In the official NFL rankings, the Patriots' run offense went from 20th in 2011 (110.2 yards per game) to seventh in 2012 (136.5 yards per game). But of course, the official NFL rankings have their shortcomings, because they represent total yardage without any consideration of when the team gained those yards or how many carries it took. Yards per carry are a much better way to analyze a running game's success, and an even better way than that is an advanced stat such as Football Outsiders' DVOA, which accounts for the fact that running backs aren't necessarily trying to gain as many yards of possible in certain situations (third-and-1, for example).

Based on these stats, the Patriots' run game was slightly better this year than it was last year, but not as good as it was in 2010. Rushing totals, of course, don't just include the ground game; they also include quarterback scrambles, end-arounds and even some wide receiver screens that travel backwards. So I isolated just numbers for New England's running backs and looked at the stats for the last three years using a number of categories.