FOXBOROUGH — With a win Sunday over Miami, the Patriots could clinch the AFC East title. They have reeled off five straight victories. New England has the highest-powered offense in the league. Stevan Ridley has rushed for the third-most yards in the AFC; he is 61 yards away from the 1,000-yard mark.
Appropriately, there’s a good feeling in the New England backfield.
“We’re happy, man,” said Ridley. “We’re happy.”
The Patriots’ caffeinated offense has placed electric grids on notice. During their five-game winning streak, they have racked up 219 points. They have averaged 424.4 yards of total offense in those wins.
That they’re scoring and piling up yards is no deviation from history. That those points and yards are coming on the ground as well as through the air is this season’s twist.
Last year, the Patriots averaged 110.2 rushing yards per game, 20th in the NFL. This year, they are averaging 143.7 rushing yards per game, sixth in the league.
Ridley has 939 of New England’s 1,581 rushing yards (59 percent). But based on the recent performances Shane Vereen has submitted, the 23-year-old Californian will be pushing for more touches during the last fourth of the regular season.
That’s just fine with Ridley.
“Shane’s been there,” Ridley said. “Everybody’s saying that Shane’s there now. Shane’s been there for two years. This isn’t the first time he’s stepped onto our team. He’s been there for many weeks.
“I’m so excited for Shane. He’s had a few injuries. But now he’s producing and doing well.”
Last year, Vereen was slowed by a hamstring injury. The rookie appeared in only five games, recording 57 yards on 15 carries.
This year, Vereen suffered a foot injury during the preseason. He missed the first three regular-season games. Perhaps it is no coincidence the Patriots dropped two of those three games.
The Patriots are 7-1 with the quick-footed Vereen in the lineup. Tom Brady has handed the ball off to Vereen 10 or more times in each of the last two wins. Before that, Vereen never had hit double-digit rushes in a game.
“It feels good to be able to contribute and help the team,” Vereen said. “Each week, there’s a lot to improve on. Even now, we still have five games left. We still have a lot of improving to do.”
Vereen helped spell Ridley against the Jets on Thanksgiving by carrying 10 times for 42 yards. But Vereen made his loudest statement when he turned a simple swing pass into an 83-yard touchdown explosion. Vereen showed not just soft hands but turbocharged legs by making sure no tacklers hauled him down short of the end zone.
The play underscored that Vereen is not just a complementary runner. If Brady needs a third or fourth option, Vereen can be trusted as a pass-catching game-breaker.
“Shane is another young player that has been patient, continues to work extremely hard and prepare each week,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said in a conference call following the 49-19 win over the Jets.
“His opportunities have picked up in certain situations or in certain games, based on either what the defense is doing or what our plan was going in. I think he’s taken advantage of the opportunities he’s been given.”
But to hear Vereen describe the play, Ridley, Danny Woodhead, or even Brandon Bolden could have produced a similar result had they been given the assignment.
“I think they have the confidence in putting all the backs in very similar situations,” Vereen said. “I just happened to be the one at the time.”
As much as Vereen’s responsibilities have increased, Ridley projects to be the primary workhorse. As a senior at LSU in 2010, Ridley rushed a career-high 249 times. Now, the straight-line bruiser (206 rushes) is on pace to push past that next month against San Francisco.
Last week, the Dolphins held Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch to 46 yards on 19 carries. But in the two previous weeks, in losses to Tennessee and Buffalo, Miami allowed Chris Johnson (126 rushing yards) and C.J. Spiller (91 yards) space on the ground.
Assuming Ridley stays on his current pace, the second-year pro should bump the 1,000-yard mark Sunday.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” Vereen said. “The opposing D has to respect us. With the offense we have, it’s an awesome feeling. We have so many weapons. It’s hard to zone in on one player. It’s a great feeling when the guy beside you is making a big play.”
The Patriots always have strived for balance. They have a running game to complement their air attack. Now, within the ground game, they have multiple options.
“We have a lot of confidence in the entire backfield,” McDaniels said. “The group in that room, there are a lot of young players that we know will continue to work hard and try to get better.
“But they have all kind of carved out roles for themselves. I don’t think anybody on our team feels bad if any one of those players has the ball in his hands on any play, whether that be Stevan or Shane, Danny or Brandon.
“They’ve all done good things with it this year and we would expect that they continue to work hard and improve.”