It may not sound like it, but the Patriots offense is feeling better, just in time for the stretch run.
In last week's 16-3 win over the Jets, the Patriots saw their starting running back (Corey Dillon), No. 2 receiver (Givens) and third-down back (Faulk) all return to action after missing significant time. Dillon, who has battled ankle and calf problems, rushed for 65 tough yards after not getting a carry over the previous three games. Givens caught five passes (for just 27 yards) after sitting out three weeks with a knee injury. And Faulk had 81 yards from scrimmage in his first appearance since breaking his foot in Week 3.
"It was good to see Kevin and Corey out there again," Givens said. "The huddle looked like the old huddle."
The Patriots (7-5) visit the Bills (4-8) on Sunday with a chance to clinch their third straight AFC East crown. (They need to win and have the second-place Dolphins to lose to the Chargers.) The Patriots haven't looked like their 2003-2004 selves for much of this season. But getting a few key pieces of the offense back on the field (and keeping them healthy the rest of the way) theoretically should aid the cause.
"The more players we can have out there, hopefully the better we will perform," said quarterback Tom Brady, who rebounded from a four-interception loss in Kansas City the previous game to throw for 271 yards and no interceptions against the Jets.
The Patriots still have some injury concerns on offense.
The offensive line continues to be without three Week 1 starters with left tackle Matt Light (broken leg) recently suffering a setback in his rehab, center Dan Koppen out for the year with a shoulder injury and Tom Ashworth (knee) not having reclaimed his right tackle spot yet. A chronic shoulder problem has kept tight end Dan Graham out of the lineup twice in the last four weeks. Fullback Patrick Pass has missed three of the past five games with a bad hamstring. And fullback Heath Evans sat out the Jets game with a shoulder injury.
Evans had been the running game's savior in consecutive wins over Miami and New Orleans in Weeks 10 and 11. But with Dillon and Faulk back, his absence now isn't a major issue ... unless, of course, Dillon or Faulk suffers a setback.
Despite the soreness in his foot, Faulk doesn't envision missing any more time.
"It's going to be a normal week," he said, looking ahead to preparations for the Buffalo game. "I tried not to come back too soon (so that) it would be a normal week after for me."
Faulk certainly looked to be in top form against the Jets. He carried 10 times for 35 yards, but his main contributions came as a third-down receiver. He picked up three big conversions, each of which kept scoring drives alive. The best was an 18-yard catch-and-run down to the 22 that set up Adam Vinatieri's go-ahead field goal with two seconds left in the first half. Faulk ran away from middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma on the play -- a good sign given all the rust that Faulk had to shake off.
The Patriots' 16 points against the Jets tied for their lowest output of the season. Yet there were signs that the returning players made a positive impact. Thanks to some fine work on third down -- the Patriots converted eight of 16 chances and limited the Jets to 4-for-14 -- New England held the ball for a season-high 38 minutes, 10 seconds and crafted scoring drives of 14, eight, 14 and 10 plays.
"I think that's what we're supposed to do on offense -- try to kill some time on the clock, run the ball, pass the ball, be a balanced offense and score," Faulk said.
The fact that the Patriots' rushing total against the Jets (146 yards) was a season high shows how far the running game has fallen. With a healthy Dillon last year, the Patriots exceeded that mark six times. Still, it was progress for a unit that came in averaging a paltry 83.5 yards (No. 29 in the league).
As for the passing game, Givens' return gave Brady another reliable option to go along with receivers Deion Branch and Troy Brown, plus second-year tight end Benjamin Watson, who has come on strong of late. Brady completed 73 percent of his attempts for his most accurate day since a Week 5 win in Atlanta.
"I think a quarterback is always in a comfort zone when he has his guys out there who have been out there for a few years," Givens said. "The whole team feels a little more comfortable. We know we have our guys back who made big plays in the past, so you have a little more confidence as a team than you would have when a lot of your starters are missing."
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