FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It’s been six years since the New England Patriots have had a 1,000-yard runner. In 2004, Corey Dillon ran for a team-record 1,635 yards in helping the Patriots win their third Super Bowl.

And while the Patriots made the playoffs in four of the five succeeding seasons, their success has been fueled mostly by the arm of Tom Brady and his stable of talented receivers. New England’s running game has become almost an afterthought, a way to keep defenses honest until Brady can find Randy Moss or Wes Welker.

That may need to change this year. Last year’s crushing 33-14 home playoff loss to Baltimore, when Welker was out with a knee injury suffered in the regular-season finale and Moss was blanketed by the Ravens, illustrated the need for a running game in the playoffs: The Patriots rushed for only 64 yards and the Ravens 234, dominating the time of possession and the game.

With Welker’s return date still not determined, the passing game may not be as strong as in the past. The Patriots still have Moss and Welker clone Julian Edelman, and brought in veteran Torry Holt, but otherwise have a lot of unproven talent among the receivers.

That could put more of an emphasis on the run, and the Patriots are confident they have the right guys to do it.

Individually, Laurence Maroney, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor won’t make anyone forget Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson, perhaps the NFL’s two best individual runners. But combined they form a group that is serviceable. Last year the Patriots’ running game ranked 12th in the NFL, averaging 120.1 yards per game.

“We have great running backs,’’ said left tackle Matt Light. “We have guys who can hit the line of scrimmage at 100 mph. They can all do some unique things in the backfield. When you look at the guys who are actually carrying the ball, I think everybody’s really happy with what we’ve got here on this team.’’

Faulk, in his 12th season with the Patriots, said this group always has been overlooked.

“We always feel we have a strong group,’’ he said. “It’s just a matter or when our numbers are called, we’ve got to be able to perform. That’s it.’’

Can they come together to provide a balance to the offense?

No one is sure.

“Every year is a new year,’’ said Coach Bill Belichick. “I don’t know how our running game, our passing game, our punt coverage or anything else is going to be this year. We’re going to go out there and work on all phases of the game and try to get them to the highest level possible.’’

When healthy, they can be very effective. But Maroney, a first-round pick in 2006 who has never quite filled the billing, Morris and Taylor have contended with injuries.

Maroney is a slasher, capable of breaking big runs with his speed but learning to play more physically. He led the team with 757 rushing yards and nine touchdowns last year. Morris (319 yards, two touchdowns) and Taylor (269 yards rushing, four touchdowns) are power runners. Faulk (335 yards, two touchdowns), one of the best third-down backs in the league, is most effective when he doesn’t have to play every down.

“I think we’ve got a lot of guys who do a lot of things well and we complement each other,’’ said Morris. “And I think, more than that, we’ve got a great group of guys.’’

Maroney sees the depth as an advantage for the Patriots. “We keep fresh legs in all the time,’’ he said. “Some teams have one running back who can hit the hole, we’ve got seven. We know we don’t have to carry the load ourselves.’’

Maroney is also including seldom-used BenJarvus Green-Ellis (who has shown flashes of brilliance in two years), Thomas Clayton and Chris Taylor in the group.

“We all know we bring something different to the team,’’ he said.

What they all share, said both Maroney and Morris, is a will to win. “There’s no job too little or too trivial for us,’’ said Morris. “Whether it’s playing fullback or whatever. Our goal is to win.’’

Maroney stressed that when he was asked if he would like to carry the ball more often.

“Hey I’m a football player, everybody would like more opportunities,’’ he said. “But at the same time I just want to win. I just want to be part of a winning football program. That’s the only thing we’re here for, to win. We’re not here for personal stats. So whatever I can do to help us win, that’s what I’m going to do.’’

Morris, in his 11th NFL season and third with the Patriots, said the team’s experience at the position is impressive.

“We have a vast wealth of experience in the running backs,’’ he said. “And that really helps, whether it’s watching film and Fred seeing something that I’m doing or someone else, we’re there for each other. We’ve seen a lot, done a lot and played a lot.’’

They can be critical of each other, he added, because everyone knows they’re just trying to help out.

“I think everyone is pretty thick-skinned,’’ added Morris. “We know if somebody says something to me or somebody says something to someone else, we know it’s best for the team and obviously, it’s nothing personal. We’re all like-minded and we want to win.’’

“Every guy knows what to do,’’ added Faulk. “Now we’ve just got to do it.’’

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]

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