FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Just when you think you’ve seen everything, the New England Patriots did this:

When they took the field for their first offensive series against the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday in the AFC championship game, they started two tight ends, one wide receiver and two running backs – Sony Michel and fullback James Develin.

On first down, Michel took a handoff up the middle for 11 yards and the tone was set for the night. It would be a hard, physical game that the Patriots ended up winning 37-31 in overtime, rushing for 176 yards.

That was the most rushing yards for the Patriots in the playoffs since they put up 177 in the 45-7 AFC championship win over Indianapolis four years ago.

And it shows just how dangerous this New England team can be as it prepares to play the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl next Sunday night in Atlanta.

The Patriots are no longer simply dependent on the right arm of Tom Brady and the hands of his receivers. Certainly when the game is on the line, as it was in the fourth quarter last week, the ball will be in Brady’s hands.

But the Patriots’ ability to run the ball – they were fifth in the NFL this season, with 127.3 yards per game, the highest ranking in the Bill Belichick era – is keeping defenses honest. In the playoffs they’re averaging 165.6 rushing yards per game.

“Any offense, the more balanced you are, the better you can be because you keep the defense on its heels,” said backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. “The big guys (on the offensive line) have done a great job and the running backs have done a great job.

“You know what was great about last week? For all those runs (48) we didn’t have one run for negative yardage. It’s always moving forward … I’ve always felt to be a great offense you can’t be one-dimensional.”

And that’s something the Patriots haven’t been this year. In the regular season they ran the ball 45 percent of the time, gaining 2,037 yards with 18 touchdowns. In the playoffs they’ve run the ball 48 percent of the time, gaining 331 yards with eight touchdowns in the two games.

The Super Bowl will feature teams with different offensive strategies. The Rams most often have three wide receivers on the field. The Patriots quite often have two backs on the field – something the Rams almost never do. Develin, for example, was on the field for 41 plays against the Chiefs – an uncommon amount for a fullback these days.

Develin’s value isn’t as a runner but a punishing blocker. As center Dave Andrews said, “He’s one of us,” meaning an offensive lineman.

Andrews also knows the Patriots have a pretty good backfield – each running back bringing his own skill set to the position. “They’re a special group,” he said. “We just have to give them the holes and they’ll find them.”

Michel, the rookie from Georgia, has led the way, gaining 931 yards in the regular season and 242 in the playoffs. James White (the team’s leading receiver in both the regular season and playoffs) and Rex Burkhead (who scored two touchdowns in the AFC title game, including the winner in overtime) give the Patriots versatility.

“I feel it’s what’s making us,” said tight end Rob Gronkowski, whose blocking on the edge has been a huge part of the running game. “You’ve got to have that run game. It opens up the play-action, opens up the receivers and that’s what we’ve been doing. It’s what we’ve been doing to win. You’ve got to be able to just grind it out, just keep on going, whatever play is called.”

The Patriots appear to have an advantage heading into the Super Bowl. The Rams were ranked only 23rd in run defense in the regular season, giving up 122.3 yards per game. But they’re been a different defense in the playoffs, limiting Dallas and New Orleans to 98 yards on 43 rushes (2.3 yards a rush).

The Patriots’ offensive line, left to right – tackle Trent Brown, guard Joe Thuney, Andrews, guard Shaq Mason and tackle Marcus Cannon – has been up to every challenge in the playoffs. Brady hasn’t been sacked in either game.

But it’s the running game that has everyone talking. And Andrews knows the line has to continue to perform for New England to win a sixth Super Bowl.

“You’ve got to give the confidence to Josh (McDaniels, New England’s offensive coordinator) to keep calling those runs,” said Andrews. “If they’re not getting any yards, you’ve got to go to something else.

“When you’re running you definitely get into a rhythm. And you can do a lot of different things. Any time you get into that rhythm and string a bunch of good plays together, stay ahead in down and distance, it’s a good feeling.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

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