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Patriots running backs step up in James White’s absence

Rex Burkhead scored three touchdowns in a 36-20 victory over the Raiders. Sony Michel rushed for 117 yards on nine carries. But the New England Patriots’ running backs weren’t so much playing for themselves as they were for teammate James White.

“We were thinking about him,” Michel said, somberly. “We all kind of came together and played hard. That’s what James White (does). He doesn’t complain. He goes to work every day. … It’s who he is.”

It’s who they were Sunday without him.

White missed his second consecutive game while mourning his late father, Tyrone, who was killed last Sunday in a car crash. The 28-year-old scat back is a staple in New England’s offense, accounting for 315 receptions, 2,786 receiving yards and 32 total touchdowns the last five seasons.

Patriots running backs took up the slack in his absence, totaling 209 rushing yards, 72 receiving yards and the three scores.

Burkhead fought back tears as he talked about his brother in the backfield. He said Patriots running backs feed off another.

“We love competing, but we root for one another when we’re out there making plays.” he said.

Burkhead, a versatile 30-year-old in his fourth season with New England, finished with six carries for 49 yards and two rushing TDs. He mimicked White as a pass catcher, totaling seven receptions for 49 yards and a receiving TD.

Michel, a 25-year-old bruiser in his third year, set up scores with runs of 38 and 48 yards en route to his fifth career 100-yard game.

Undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor also provided a spark, carrying 11 times for 43 yards.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick said a “good complementary group effort” powered the rushing output.

“When you run the ball for 250 yards, it’s not all one guy. You’ve got to have a lot of people doing things well,” he said. “The receivers blocked well. We had more blocking downfield, and we got some extra yards on that too by keeping the corners and safeties out of some of those plays.”

New England’s trio of running backs struggled last week against the Seattle Seahawks, finishing with 13 carries for 20 yards and four receptions for 47 yards as Newton carried the offense. But it was the 31-year-old quarterback who took a backseat against the Raiders, completing 17 of 28 passes for 162 yards, a touchdown and interception.

He was rarely called upon to make key plays, though, and gladly deferred while the running backs surged.

“We practice to maximize our role. I think that’s what you got guys doing,” Newton said. “It didn’t matter if it was at the running back position, which was highlighted today. Or anything else moving forward.”

Newton, too, was thinking about White on Sunday and said “he’s a (team) captain for a reason” when espousing his value to the offense and franchise.

“The thing about it most is, when you have a guy like that, you empathize with what he’s going through. … You feel it emotionally,” Newton said. “We just want to reward him and put him good spirits. … We’re excited as heck to hopefully get him back soon.”

But the Patriots were just fine against the Raiders without him.

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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