January 1

NFL: Brady likes handing off ball

Running game just helps Patriots QB

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Tom Brady has had to win so many games for the New England Patriots over the years with his right arm. So he’s thrilled with the way his team has run the ball the past two weeks.

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New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount (29) celebrates his touchdown with quarterback Tom Brady, right, in the second quarter of an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

“Last week, we just did a great job of running the ball,” Brady said Wednesday after the Patriots went through their first practice of the bye week leading to the Jan. 11 divisional playoff game. “The line played so physical and it was just so awesome to watch. To end the game like that, to rush the way we did . was awesome.

“I haven’t been part of that for a long time, because we’ve just got a very physical offensive line and backs that run really hard. That’s hard to defend, especially over the course of the game. That hopefully can wear the other team out by making them tackle, making them stop you, making them figure it out, make them come up on the line and hit you in the face.”

Through 14 games, the Patriots were averaging 118.29 yards per game on the ground. Then at Baltimore, in what turned out to be a 41-7 win but was actually closer than that final score, New England ran for 142. Last week, in the pouring rain, LeGarrette Blount ran for a career-high 189 yards, and the team ran up 267.

Now, through 16 games, the Patriots, who will play the higher remaining seed (either Cincinnati, Indianapolis or Kansas City) after this week’s wild-card games, are averaging 129.3 yards per game on the ground, third in the AFC.

The increase is less than 11 yards a week, but over so many games that’s a real improvement. And with Stevan Ridley apparently over his fumbling problem, the Pats have a legitimate three-headed monster in Blount, Ridley and Shane Vereen.

Brady has thrown the ball 50 times the past two weeks. In the first 14 games, he averaged 41.3 tries per game. He has averaged 147 yards passing the past two weeks, after averaging 289.1 per game through the first 14.

More? Brady has 28 total completions the last two weeks; he had six individual games of 29 or more in the first 14.

Clearly, the New England running game became more important this season after receiver Wes Welker departed for Denver, and tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested for murder. Fellow TE Rob Gronkowski played only seven games, coming back late after arm and back surgeries and then injuring his knee.

And going forward?

“It’s going to be a matter of what they’re doing a good job of defending and what we feel we’re doing a good job of executing,” Brady said. “There’s a little spot in there with what they’re doing well and what you’re not doing well and you try to get to it. And you try to make the adjustments over the course of the game.”

NOTES: S Devin McCourty, who missed last week’s game with a concussion, returned to practice Wednesday. . Brady wouldn’t comment on former offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien getting the head job with the Texans, saying, “That was a long time ago,” and adding he’s focused on this team now. But when asked about the possibility of current coordinator Josh McDaniels getting a job – Cleveland has been given permission to talk to McDaniels – Brady said, “He’s a great coach and I said the other day he’s one of my best buds, and I’ve been around for a long time, so I know him pretty well. I’m glad he’s my coach.” . Brady said the early Wednesday practice had him asleep for the start of 2014. . Asked about the NHL playing its Winter Classic at the Big House at Michigan, his alma mater, Brady said, “Pretty cool, it’s a great environment, so . I wish I had a chance to get back there to watch a football game; maybe when I retire. But to do a hockey game in there is pretty sweet. I know they did it at Fenway a few years ago, which is really cool – it’s a really neat experience. It was smart of the NHL to do that.” . The Patriots have 18 players on the 53-man roster – 15 rookies and Blount, wide receiver Danny Amendola and special teams player Chris White – who will make their first playoff appearances.

Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP–NFL

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