While most people will point to tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as the X-factors for New England, there is a little guy that most people have forgotten about who remains a weapon ready to be unleashed.
What happened to running back Danny Woodhead?
Last season, Woodhead was an X-factor for the Pats' offensive attack. He accumulated 547 yards on the ground, picking up 5.6 yards per clip and finished with 34 catches for 379 yards. He ran for five touchdowns and picked up one as a receiver.
Despite his size—the elfish running back is listed, very generously, at 5'8" and 195 pounds—Woody was a constant threat that defenses had to account for on every single snap.
Woodhead had a few huge games in 2010, but his two biggest were against the New York Jets and the Baltimore Ravens.
Against Rex Ryan's Jets, Woody didn't do much on the ground (he rushed twice for 11 yards), but he shredded the vaunted New York defense with four catches for 104 yards. One of those catches, a 50-yard gain, jump-started the offense and helped turn a hard-fought battle into a 45-3 massacre against New England's biggest rivals.
Earlier in the season, against a vicious Ravens defense, Woodhead ignited a Patriots offense that was reeling from the loss of wide receiver Randy Moss. While Deion Branch ended up being the star of the game, it was Woodhead's dual effort that gave the Pats a chance. Woody rushed 11 times for 63 yards (5.7 average) and caught five passes for 52 yards.
That effort out of the backfield was pivotal to the Patriots' success.
Teams went into every game against New England wondering how they would use Woodhead—sort of like they do this season with Gronkowski and Hernandez.
But with the emergence of rookie running back Stevan Ridley and with quarterback Tom Brady shattering passing records left and right, Woodhead was forgotten.
Still, despite a strong end of the season (Woody rushed 20 times for 106 yards in Weeks 14-17, a 5.3 yard-per-carry average, with a rushing touchdown), the diminutive back remains an afterthought.
However, with those same aggressive, ferocious Ravens coming to town, it may be time for head coach Bill Belichick to dust off one of last season's game plans, and get Woodhead involved early and often.
The Ravens are clearly going to be trying to put pressure on Brady, both with Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata, who are each tremendous in their own way: Suggs as an edge-rusher and Ngata as a penetrating defensive tackle. Either way, the pocket will be collapsing on TB12 faster than it has at any point this season.
That's where Woodhead comes in.
No one on the New England roster is as good at running the draw as No. 39. Also, no one catches the ball out of the backfield as well as Woodhead (I'm excluding Kevin Faulk because he has been practically non-existent this season).
With the pass-rush coming in hard, and with Suggs and Ngata overpursuing in order to knock Brady out of rhythm, Woodhead's change of pace in the backfield would be huge.
He could offset the blitz with a few well-timed draws and could keep middle-linebacking master Ray Lewis on his heels by releasing into the flat or over the middle for a few short catches. With Woody's wheels and agility, who knows, he could even break a few long plays.
Normally, I would recommend getting the ball to the more explosive Ridley. However with Ridley's recent penchant for putting the ball on the ground (he's fumbled once in each of the last two games), I'd rather put my faith in Woodhead.
He has better ball security and would be less likely to make the lethal turnover (fumble) against one of the hardest-hitting, ball-hawking teams in the NFL.
It's time for Woodhead to come out of hiding; the New England Patriots need their X-factor back and they need him back this Sunday in order to secure their fifth Super Bowl berth in the last 11 seasons.