They are wrapped around the clothing rod in Stevan Ridley's Gillette Stadium locker like a tropical vine: gloves, eight pairs or more, and in a variety of colors—black and purple and pink and navy and red and white. "When you're struggling holding onto the ball, it can't hurt having a fresh pair," says their owner. "I feel better knowing they're brand new, and as sticky as they can be."
The 23-year-old Ridley, a third-round pick out of LSU in 2011, has had trouble keeping the ball in his begloved clutches. His first postseason experience, last January, ended prematurely because of it. In the third quarter of the Patriots' playoff opener, with his team up 42--7 on Tim Tebow's Broncos, Ridley grabbed a screen pass but then allowed the ball to be punched out by a trio of converging defenders. Coach Bill Belichick directed his bench's tractor beam at Ridley and kept it there for the remainder of a run to the Super Bowl. Sure-handed BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who never fumbled in four years as a Patriot, took over.
This season, with Green-Ellis a Bengal, Ridley started 12 games and fumbled four times, a total topped only twice by Patriots running backs (Kevin Faulk and Corey Dillon) in the Belichick era.
Still, between muffs, the 5' 11", 220-pound Ridley emerged as something that New England hasn't had in some time: a running back of star caliber. His 1,263 rushing yards were seventh in the league and the most by a Patriot since Dillon's 1,635 in 2004, the last season in which the Pats won a ring. New England went to the Super Bowl in '07 and '11 too, with the first- and second-ranked offenses, respectively, but those teams lived and died by Tom Brady's passing. In losses to the Giants in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI, they mustered totals of just 45 and 84 rushing yards.
This year's offense gained 6,846 yards, two fewer than last season's franchise record but 420 more rushing, thanks largely to Ridley. "Our offense is more potent when it's balanced," Ridley says. "Teams are looking at Brady first, the best quarterback to ever play the game, and they're overlooking the running game."
He knows that his fumbles will not be tolerated ("It's one thing the Patriots have never put up with," he says), especially on Sunday against the Texans, who recovered 14 fumbles by opponents, tied for fourth in the NFL—but he thinks he's identified their source. "Long season, things going well," he says, "you find yourself relaxed, just playing the game. I've got to be dependable."
While the Patriots ranked 25th on defense and 29th against the pass, Houston doesn't have a full stock of aerial threats to exploit their soft secondary and keep pace on the scoreboard. New England averaged a league-high 34.8 points despite playing 12 games without tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez on the field together. With both players healthy and with a ball-control-focused running threat in Ridley, this postseason there really might be no stopping the Pats.
When New England has the ball ...
During the Patriots' December embarrassment of Houston, Brandon Lloyd had seven catches for 89 yards against Pro Bowl CB Johnathan Joseph, who was slowed by groin and hamstring injuries. Joseph is now healthy, but so is Rob Gronkowski, who faces a Texans D that allowed 11 TDs to TEs, tied for the league high. If Houston keys in on Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez—even if Joseph keeps Lloyd in check—space will open up for Stevan Ridley and slot receiver Wes Welker.
DE Rob Ninkovich has turned himself, at 28, into the Pats' sacks leader (eight) through perseverance and savvy, "setting guys up, using your hands, changing things up," he says. The man he'll face, Texans RT Derek Newton, just became a starter this year, and Pro Football Focus graded him 65th among tackles in 2012.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Receiving yards from the slot by WR Wes Welker, the most in the NFL.
QB pressures allowed by C Ryan Wendell, second most in the league.
MICHAEL IVINS/USA TODAY SPORTS (RIDLEY)
BACK PAIN RELIEF Ridley—just the second Pats back to break 1,100 yards since 2001—could be the difference between Lombardi and loser.
AL TIELEMANS (WELKER)