DENVER, CO -- Riddle me this: What do you get when Deion Branch is inactive, Rob Gronkowski is held to 53 yards, and Wes Welker manages just 41?
While that equation might normally equal disaster for the Patriots, it added up to a more balanced offensive attack on Sunday. New England posted 141 yards rushing on 39 carries in its 41-23 win over the Denver Broncos. The output is the most garnered on the ground since Kansas City's defense surrendered 157 in Week 11.
Rookie Stevan Ridley lead the charge with 65-yards on 11 carries. His assessment of the backs' effort was interesting.
"We're just doing what we go out there and practice every day," Ridley said. "We get in the game a lot and sometimes we end up throwing the ball a little bit more than people would like, but it's all momentum. When the offense gets rolling, we kind of go with what works. It was good to have it on both sides of the ball -- the run and the pass -- but we do whatever we have to do to get a win."
The end trumps the means, of course -- that much is elementary. But when your job as a running back is the means and you're working toward each end with a quarterback like Tom Brady, well, it might be tough to feel involved.
Not so on Sunday night. Three of New England's five touchdowns came on the run. BenJarvus Green-Ellis scored his ninth of the season, Danny Woodhead finally got his first, and even Brady found the end zone on a 1-yard QB sneak.
It didn't all happen at once.
The Patriots couldn't get much of anything going in the first quarter -- out of sync on offense, utterly inept on defense -- and found themselves down 13-7. But gears shifted and New England started grinding out positive yardage in the second. Ridley and Woodhead went to work on the opening series, turning second downs back to firsts and forcing Denver's defense to get physical. They also kept Tim Tebow's own clock-devouring offense off the field.
"If we scored fast that would have put the ball in Denver's hands more than we would like it to be," said Ridley. "For us to go out there and do what we did in the running game and also put the ball in the air and have the success we had, it was just a game plan that came together how we wanted it to go and we came out with the win."
New England scored 20 points in the third. Its 55 rushing yards in that quarter almost matched the 58 of the first half. Woodhead's touchdown -- his first since December 26, 2010 -- was a fantastic 10-yard draw up the middle to put the team ahead, 34-16.
He shrugged off any concern over a personal, or Patriots-wide, rushing droughts.
"It was great, but the most important thing was we scored -- not necessarily that I scored, but that the team scored. It was nice," Woodhead said.
"We're just going out there and executing, whatever game it may be, and if we get more rushing yards, great, to balance it out. We're just going to try to do whatever we can to win the ball game and not worry so much about how many yards."
Maybe the numbers are nothing to worry about, but they're something to consider.
A Patriots offense firing on all cylinders is fearsome. Brady using play action? Deadly. But it should be a basic need for a team with no downfield threat. Ridley stressed this in the postgame.
"I think there are a lot of people sitting on our pass and not expecting us to run the ball as much as we do," he said. "It works both ways: When you run well, you throw well; when you throw well, the running game opens up. We were just balanced today."
But how, with the playoffs looming, do they keep the ground game consistently purring? That's a riddle the Patriots haven't yet solved.