The New England Patriots won’t be on the field this weekend, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t begin analyzing what they will have to do to make a deep postseason run. The Pats are set to host either the Chiefs, Bengals, or Colts on January 11th, in what will be one of the AFC divisional matchups.
There are a lot of players will have to produce for New England over the next couple of weeks, but here are five guys who I believe have to play well, for the Pats to succeed.
1. Julian Edelman
The Patriots offense has undergone a lot of turnover this past year, and after losing most of their top play-makers, one man has risen to the top of the depth chart, and really has become a dangerous offensive weapon. Julian Edelman reeled in 105 receptions this year, gained 1,056 yards, and reached the end zone six times. He ability to make people miss after the catch is truly incredible, and he has improved his route-running, and knowledge of what the defense is doing, dramatically. At some point in the postseason tournament, the Pats will have to drop back and put together a drive using just the passing game, and Edelman must be ready to produce. Quarterback Tom Brady doesn’t have a lot of other options, especially ones that he trusts in the playoffs. I think that Edelman has convinced pretty much every single Patriots fan that he deserves a contract this offseason, but continuing his high level of play in the playoffs would seal the deal on a new extension, keeping him in New England for the rest of his career.
2. Chandler Jones
Rushing the passer is probably the most important thing to have on your playoff roster, if you want to advance to the Super Bowl. A good pass rush not only hides a bad secondary, but it can shut down seemingly unstoppable aerial assaults (as Pats fans know all too well). The Patriots had a good year in terms of sacks, as they finished ranked fifth in the league at 48 take-downs. Defensive end Chandler Jones led the charge, as he totaled 11.5 sacks, and it felt like he earned a lot more than that. No matter who the Pats play in the divisional round, they will have to pressure the quarterback, and Jones has to be the guy that does the heavy lifting. As great as Rob Ninkovich is, Jones is easily the most talented pass rusher the Patriots have, and he has the ability to really dominate a game. The Pats have a much better secondary than most people give them credit for, but even the best cornerbacks will get beat if the opposing quarterback has all day to throw, which is why Jones must have a big postseason.
3. LeGarrette Blount/Stevan Ridley
Other than Joe Montana, there isn’t a quarterback in the history of the NFL that can compete with Tom Brady in terms of playoff success. He has won three Super Bowls, won 17 playoff games, and led countless game winning drives in the fourth quarter. But if this Patriots team wants to make a deep run, the running game will have to help out Brady. The emergence of LeGarrette Blount has been a real blessing for the Patriots, as his physicality, and overall effectiveness as a ground and pound runner, has made their offense extremely hard to stop. Blount’s terrific second half of the season has overshadowed the solid play of fellow back Stevan Ridley, who has overcome some early fumbling problems, and it appears that he is back on track. The combination of these two powerful running backs will do some serious damage to the AFC, which will take some pressure off of Brady, and it will open up a lot of opportunities for the Patriots wide receivers.
4. Entire Offensive Line
The number one thing that has derailed the Patriots from winning the Super Bowl over the last couple of years has been the poor play of the offensive line. When Tom Brady gets pressure in his face, he can’t be as efficient as he normally is, which makes it very hard for New England to come away with a playoff victory. This group was hit hard by injuries this year, but they are now healthy (aside from Sebastian Vollmer), and it is now time for them to step up in both the passing game, and the running game. As I just mentioned, running the ball will be key for this offense to succeed, and that starts with the big guys up front pushing the defense off of the line of scrimmage. If they can do this, it makes their job of protecting Brady much easier, and if they can protect their quarterback, odds are they will be able to win some football games.
5. Devin McCourty
Standing in the Pats way of a Super Bowl berth, are a multitude of guys that will want to throw the ball deep on New England. A.J. Green and Andy Dalton have formed a lethal deep threat connection, Dwayne Bowe isn’t what he used to be, but he is still a viable threat, and of course, Peyton Manning and his offense always look to burn you down the field. This is why McCourty has to be at his absolute best, because if teams start to have success deep, this beat up Patriots defense has no chance. The only issue I have with McCourty is his health, as he did suffer a head injury two weeks ago in Baltimore. When he is healthy, there aren’t many safeties that play as well as he does. Hopefully McCourty has put the head injury behind him, and is ready to continue his stellar play in the playoffs.