There was nothing wrong with using a lot of Dion Lewis. As long as the sixth-year running back had plenty to give in the last two games of the regular season, the Patriots were happy to accept it from him.
But as John Lennon and Paul McCartney suggested so many years ago, it’s better to get by with a little help from your friends.
Lewis had a combined 105 rushing and receiving yards in the first half of Saturday night’s AFC Divisional Round playoff game against the Tennessee Titans. But when it came time to finishing the work he started, he was more than happy to let others step in.
Running back James White, who had missed the last two weeks of the regular season with an ankle injury, and wide receiver Chris Hogan, who had missed six of the last eight games because of a shoulder injury, combined for three second-quarter touchdowns Saturday night. Those were the springboard for the 35-14 victory that sent the Patriots to their seventh straight AFC Championship Game.
“I was just excited to be back out there, just blessed to have the opportunity again,” said White, who was injured midway through the game in Pittsburgh on Dec. 17. “I just don’t like letting those opportunities pass me by. I was just trying to do my job to the best of my ability and help my team win.”
White’s performance in the second half and overtime of last February’s Super Bowl in Houston against Atlanta could have earned him MVP honors if Tom Brady hadn’t won it for engineering the comeback from a 28-3 deficit. Many people thought that performance by White was going to be the springboard for bigger statistics going forward, but the fourth-year veteran’s 2017 season was remarkably similar statistically to the last two that preceded it -- except for the two missed games at the end of December, that is.
During that time, and with so many other pieces of the Patriots’ offensive puzzle sitting on the sidelines because of injuries, Lewis had to raise his game beyond any levels he had ever come close to reaching in six injury-plagued seasons.
Lewis had another big game Saturday. He carried 15 times for 62 yards and caught nine of the 10 balls thrown his way for another 79 yards. But this time, he wasn’t asked to be the every-down running back or take over the third-down role that White has executed so well in recent times.
White finished with four catches for 29 yards and four carries for 11 yards -- not spectacular on their own merit. But within his role, and with those having produced the first two touchdowns of the second quarter, they were quite productive.
Hogan, meanwhile, caught just one pass among the four thrown at him, but it was for 4 yards and a touchdown to give the Patriots a 21-7 halftime lead. He may not have been targeted much, but had a high snap count in the first half, and that gave the Tennessee coaching staff a lot more to think about than if had they been game-planning for the Patriots at any other time in the last half of the regular season.
“They did a great job,” said quarterback Tom Brady (35-53, 337 yards, three TD), who threw for more than 300 yards in playoff competition for the 13th time in his lengthy career.
“There’s been kind of some parts that have been in and out,” Brady continued. “(Hogan) has missed a lot over the last half of the season, James did too, and Rex (Burkhead) was out, and I think that when you have some of your best players on the field all the time, it’s a great benefit to us -- like it would be to any team.
“Whoever is on the team and on the roster is going to be counted on at some point,” he said. “It shows the kind of depth we have, and you never know when you’re going to be called upon to go in there and make the plays.”
The victory set up the Patriots’ seventh straight appearance in the conference title game next Sunday at Gillette Stadium (3 p.m. start) against either the veteran-laden Pittsburgh Steelers or the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Patriots haven’t matched their divisional-round success in those games, having gone 3-3 and having to win two of the last three just to break even. But the fact is that they keep getting there, and it appears that their momentum toward a 10th Super Bowl berth in the history of the franchise is growing stronger, not waning.
It’s not something that comes naturally, White said.
“All the hard work we put in is for these moments,” he said. “You just have to make the most of those opportunities. Every game is going to be tough, and typically a four-quarter game, so you just have to practice hard and prepare hard.”