SAN FRANCISCO - Pigskin pop quiz: Are the Patriots a passing team or a running team this season?
It's a trick question and a tricky problem for opposing defenses. Just ask the Oakland Raiders, who geared up to stop receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker and got run over to the tune of 277 yards rushing - the Patriots' most since 1985 - and still allowed Matt Cassel to throw a career-high four touchdown passes in New England's 49-26 victory Sunday.
After their outburst, the Patriots actually rank higher in the NFL in rushing offense than passing offense. The Patriots are seventh in rushing yards per game (137.6), while they are 11th in passing (226.1). Although the running attack has flown under the radar, the Patriots have rushed for 1,927 yards, already topping last season's total (1,849). They are averaging 4.5 yards per carry, which would be the most by a Patriots team since 1983 (4.8).
"Honestly, as a team, I think we feel most confident in that we've been able to run the ball effectively as well as throw it," said Sammy Morris, who rushed for 117 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries against the Raiders. "I think that kind of sets up a potent attack as an offense, and obviously it helps out our whole team."
Barring an unforeseen breakdown, Patriots will top 2,000 yards rushing. If they do, it will be only the third time the Patriots have surpassed 2,000 yards in a season since 1985 - which was the last of three consecutive 2,000-plus seasons.
In 1988, the Patriots ran for 2,120 yards on 588 carries (3.6 yards per car ry), led by John Stephens's 1,168 yards. In 2004, behind Corey Dillon's club-record 1,635 yards, the Patriots had 2,134 yards on 524 carries (4.1 yards per carry).
What makes the Patriots' running attack all the more remarkable is that it has flourished without a feature back - Laurence Maroney was shelved for the season with a shoulder injury.
Despite missing 2 1/2 games with a knee injury, Morris is the Patriots' leading rusher with 554 yards and seven touchdowns on 117 carries (4.7 yards per carry). Kevin Faulk, who has 506 yards rushing, is averaging 6.2 yards per carry. LaMont Jordan, who ran for 97 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries against his former team, is averaging 5.5 yards per attempt.
When Jordan, who missed eight games this season with a right calf injury, was out and Morris was being eased back from his injury, undrafted rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis stepped in and ran for 105 yards (on 26 carries) Nov. 9 against Buffalo. Green-Ellis, the team's third-leading rusher (275 yards, 74 carries, 3.7 yards per carry) was a healthy scratch Sunday, even though his five rushing touchdowns trail only Morris.
Such success with a variety of backs is a tribute to the performance of the offensive line - left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins, center Dan Koppen, right guard Stephen Neal, and right tackle Nick Kaczur.
Jordan, who scored on a 49-yard run, the Patriots' longest rush of the season, was quick to thank the line for getting him in the end zone. Morris feels the same way.
"I'm always quick to give the offensive line credit," said Morris. "Those guys, they're big guys and they're pretty agile. They're able to get on their blocks and sustain them, and it gets us into that second level of defenders. Once we get there, I've always said the onus is on the backs after that."
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said that some underrated and unrecognized aspects of the rushing attack are the downfield blocking of Moss and Welker, Cassel's ability to audible out of bad plays, and great game-planning from the offensive staff, led by coordinator Josh McDaniels.
"The backs have done a good job - they've all done a good job - and we've had a lot of good blocking by the offensive line, some good play-calling, and some adjustments at the line of scrimmage" said Belichick. "At times Matt has changed the play to get us into a good play or sometimes, more importantly, to get us out of a bad play where kind of the deck is stacked against us."
But running the ball simply isn't as sexy as a prolific passing attack, unless you have a dynamic back such as Adrian Peterson or Brandon Jacobs. So, although it's possible that the performance of the offensive line is actually better than last season, when Light, Mankins, and Koppen were selected to the Pro Bowl, it seems unlikely that all three will make it this season. (The AFC and NFC teams will be announced today.)
But they'll easily swap a Pro Bowl berth for one in the playoffs, and with two games to go and both of them in cold-weather climates - the Patriots host Arizona Sunday and end the season at Buffalo - the New England ground game figures to get the call down the stretch.
"I know those guys are playing well right now, and we're going to continue to ride their success to help us as a team," said Morris of the offensive line.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.