The New England Patriots, playoff bye week or not, are a team expected to make a lot of noise in the playoffs. Regardless of seeding, they are primed to make a push at a trip back to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII.
To get past the likes of the Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens and company, the Patriots will need their best to play their best. Here is a look at five players who will be crucial to New England's hopes of raising their fourth Lombardi Trophy in franchise history this February.
At this year's trade deadline, the New England Patriots' made the most aggressive move of any team in the league, acquiring standout cornerback Aqib Talib from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Talib has not been, by any stretch of the imagination, perfect since suiting up for the Patriots, but there is a noticeable difference in the secondary when a healthy Talib is on the field.
Talib is the one cornerback who has the ability to match up with a top receiver and be competitive with him for sixty minutes. Alfonzo Dennard has shown the ability to compete, but is nowhere near the proven commodity in the Talib is since entering the league.
One player the Patriots would love to have Talib keep an eye on down the road in the playoffs may be the Broncos' Demaryius Thomas. Thomas went off against the Patriots in October, catching 9 balls for 180 yards. His 80-yard touchdown led to the Broncos' only playoff victory last year, against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
If Talib's hip is anywhere near 100 percent in January, he should be able to help limit Thomas' big-play opportunities.
A lot of Devin McCourty's ability to play at his best depends on the health of other players. At this point, it is becoming clear that McCourty is a better safety than cornerback. He has shown growth playing deep every week but, for him to continue to play at safety, the Patriots need cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard and Aqib Talib back at full health.
Without them on the field, the team needs McCourty at cornerback, as their depth at safety is a little more than at the cornerback position. A bye week in the playoffs could go a long way in getting the secondary of Dennard, Talib, McCourty and Steve Gregory (clearly the best group there) back on the field together.
McCourty has shown an ability the team has been missing for a long time: making plays on the ball playing back deep. To shut down some of the receivers and vertical passing games they could meet in the playoffs, they need McCourty to keep making steps forward at safety in the hope that he did not already hit a plateau.
Despite the fact that Brandon Lloyd was easily the biggest free agent acquisition this offseason, it has not all been rainbows and sunshine since he arrived in Foxboro. Tom Brady and Lloyd have "been on different pages" this season.
One thing is certain, though: when those two have it going, it adds another element to the offense. That was front and center during the Patriots' ferocious comeback attempt against the 49ers in which Lloyd tallied a career-high 190 yards, including a 53-yard bomb.
If Lloyd can continue to produce at a high level even when Rob Gronkowski returns to the lineup (most likely when the playoffs begin), the Patriot offense will be as scary and difficult to defend as it has ever has.
Josh McDaniels knows how to utilize Lloyd from their past relationships in Denver and St. Louis; he just needs to make sure he does not get lost in the mix with all the other weapons at his disposal.
Stevan Ridley may not get a lot of attention, but he is quietly going rush for north of 1,200 yards this season. In just his second year he has become the clear No. 1 back in and found the end zone ten times so far this season.
The former-LSU back will be a key cog in the Patriots run at a Super Bowl. At some point in the playoffs, there could very well be a situation where the Patriots are attempting to run down the clock and protect a lead and Ridley will be called upon. If that situation comes, Ridley needs to make ball security priority number one, before gaining extra yards.
Another scenatio that could easily arise based on the time of year is inclement weather, something Ridley has not had to play in much in his brief stint in New England. However, if the situation arises and the Patriots are having an off day throwing the ball in the cold, snowy winter weather, he needs to answer the bell.
For the first time since Corey Dillon, the Patriots have a back that has the ability to be a real difference maker in the playoff run.
The most important, of course, is saved for last. The New England Patriots still live and die by quarterback Tom Brady almost every week. Even with their defenses' apparent steady growth since acquiring Talib, the team is hardpressed to overcome a bad game by Brady and come out on top.
Despite not winning a Super Bowl since February 2005, Brady still has an unbelievable 16-6 postseason record. Those 16 victories have him tied with Joe Montana for the most in NFL history. A 10-0 start to his playoff career did not hurt his chances of catching Montana.
Brady needs to be the straw that stirs the drink once again, as the team will face no bad defense on the way through the conference playoffs outside of a possible matchup with Indianapolis. Brady could find himself in some shootouts if the defense plays like its old self and, against a team such as Denver, he will need to be at his best.
Could this be the year Tom Brady wins a record third Super Bowl MVP trophy?