Look, Tom Brady is good, sure, but when he’s on the field with running back Dion Lewis, New England might actually be unbeatable.
The Patriots haven’t lost any of the 15 games that the versatile journeyman has appeared in for them (seven in 2015 and, counting Saturday night’s 34–16 win, eight this season). Lewis’s two huge first-quarter touchdowns against the Texans in their divisional-round matchup helped put the Patriots on track to win again. He scored a touchdown at the 9:27 mark on a quick swing pass from Brady. Later in the first, Lewis took a kick return 98 yards to the house to push the Patriots’ lead to 14–3. In the fourth quarter, he tacked on a 1-yard rushing touchdown that helped ice the game.
Without the injured Rob Gronkowski, New England’s ability to dictate exploitable matchups and attack the weak link in a defense has been severely diminished; with Gronk, the Patriots would just move their big, unguardable tight end around the formation until some hapless defender lined up against him in coverage. When that happened, they’d attack the mismatch with deadly efficiency. But minus that sure thing in their repertoire, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Brady have had to get a little more creative in each game. Sometimes they look to Julian Edelman, sometimes it’s Martellus Bennett, and on Saturday night, despite entering the game as part of the three-headed running back platoon with LeGarrette Blount and James White, Lewis emerged as that movable chess piece.
It should be no surprise. The Texans finished the year 28th in coverage against running backs out of the backfield, per Football Outsiders. Putting Lewis out on pass routes against 260-pound Benardrick McKinney was just unfair: Lewis is too quick and too explosive, and the Patriots used that advantage perfectly. The kick return touchdown later was just a bonus.
With his two first-quarter scores, Lewis joined Dante Hall and Jacoby Jones as just the third player in league history with a receiving touchdown and a kickoff return touchdown in a playoff game. With the fourth-quarter rushing TD, he became the first player in NFL playoff history to score in those three ways. He fumbled away his second kickoff return early in the second quarter, which led to a quick Houston touchdown, but the former Eagles, Browns, and Colts player gave the Patriots their best chance at exploiting a clear mismatch with an otherwise very tough Texans defense.