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FOXBOROUGH, MA - DECEMBER 23: Sony Michel of the New England Patriots runs with the ball during the second half against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Sony Michel of the New England Patriots runs with the ball during the second half against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

Bill Belichick has often said there are three ways to prove your toughness as a football team. Two of them are running the ball and stopping the run.

Safe to say, after the Patriots’ more-dominant-than-it-looks 24-12 win over the Bills, that they are indeed a football team that is tough.

The Patriots rushed a whopping 47 (!) times for 273 yards and two touchdowns against the Bills on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. Five different players took the ball out of the backfield, and they all produced. It was tied for the third-most rushing yards by any team in the NFL in 2018, and the best total ever with Tom Brady starting at quarterback. The only better running performance in the Bill Belichick era came in 2008, and you have to go back to 1983 to find a more productive day on the ground for the Patriots.

Like any game, the Patriots wanted their ground game to open everything up for the offense. They didn’t even need that, as they imposed their will and did whatever they wanted with the run.

“We wanted to be physical, and when you can run the ball that makes everything else go,” said guard Shaq Mason. “We just executed.”

It also helps that Sony Michel had perhaps his most complete game as a Patriot. The rookie rushed 18 times for 116 yards and a touchdown, and the score was the most promising play. Mason led the way with an excellent pull-block to push the Bills back, and even Julian Edelman chipped in with a block of his own, as Michel barreled through the sea of humanity to find enough of an opening to hit the end zone.

Goal line and short yardage plays have been an issue in the run game altogether, particularly with Michel. It’s been one of the main reasons the offense hasn’t been as efficient in the red zone this year. But for the rookie, he was satisfied to actually deliver the final blow on that touchdown drive.

“It’s always satisfying,” said Michel. “My mindset is to finish each drive, finish each play. That was a great representation of finishing.”

Dec 23, 2018; Foxborough, MA: New England Patriots running back Sony Michel (26) runs the ball against the Buffalo Bills in the third quarter at Gillette Stadium. (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)

Dec 23, 2018; Foxborough, MA: New England Patriots running back Sony Michel (26) runs the ball against the Buffalo Bills in the third quarter at Gillette Stadium. (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)

The Patriots also had their way with the Bills run defense in the form of jet sweeps. The blocking by the receivers was key to springing several of those calls; at one point it felt like they could run it every play without being stopped. Cordarrelle Patterson had one of his most explosive games as a Patriot, taking four jet sweeps for 66 yards. Between him and Phillip Dorsett, the Patriots gained 79 yards on just six jet sweep plays.

Backs, receivers, offensive linemen, blocking … running. All in all a dominant game and a complete one for the Pats on the ground.

“It was team execution,” head coach Bill Belichick of the running game. “And that comes with a lot of reps on the practice field and a lot of time spent in the meeting room to get those things ready. We had a good day with that today and that was important for us.”

The Patriots’ toughness shined the most with the running game on offense, but they checked off the other two toughness boxes too. Honorable mention is due to the run defense, which held the Bills to a measly 72 yards on 18 carries, an exact 4.0-yard average that ultimately had zero effect on the game.

It helps that the Patriots played more base defense and less dime, unlike their light run defense against the Steelers. But they showed plenty of improvement up front, and it helped that a motivated Danny Shelton got back in the lineup.

“It started with the defensive line,” said Shelton. “It felt like we did our job and we did a great job at helping out on defense. We just had the mindset coming into this game of dominating the line of scrimmage and we executed.”

They got the trifecta with their performance on kickoffs and punts. The Bills averaged 18 yards per kick return, as they weren’t shut down but had to grind out returns from deep in their own territory. Punter Ryan Allen pinned them down inside their own 25-yard line four times, often with help from special teams cornerstone Matthew Slater’s impeccable plays on the ball.

On a day where Tom Brady (48.3 passer rating) had perhaps his worst game of the season, the Patriots still won by 12 points and would’ve won by 18 without a garbage time touchdown by Buffalo. They earned that victory by grinding it out in the tougher areas of the game, and they did it all three ways that Belichick wants them to do it. Don’t want to hear “It’s the Bills!” either; that’s a tough, talented defense that the Patriots just out-toughed, and entirely with the run game.

The Patriots may not have their most talented team ever this season, and it remains to be seen how tough they can be on the road.

But at Gillette Stadium? Can’t doubt their toughness now.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at matthew.dolloff@bbgi.com.