Happy Thanksgiving! Happy Hanukkah! Happy Black Friday! If I missed any, feel free to comment.
Today, post-tryptophan and pre-Pilgrim sandwiches—if you don’t know what that is, then stop reading immediately, look it up, make one and eat it—New Englanders celebrate not only a day of feasting, football and the festival of lights, but also the five-day anniversary of the most epic comeback since “I know you are, but what am I?”
Yes, just five short days ago the Patriots pulled off the signature win in the NFL this season. Down by 24 at the half, they stunned the Denver Broncos and once again asserted their dominance over Peyton Manning.
I also lent further credence to my sneaking suspicion that I am in fact psychic. Seriously. In last week’s column I suggested that Wes Welker was a Trojan Horse sent to sabotage Denver in key moments. Can you seriously tell me that wasn’t exactly what happened?
Of course, that was last week.
So while fans will rightfully savor one of the most spellbinding wins in team history, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and company have already moved on.
They rose to the occasion in a spectacular way, but the challenge now is to parlay that momentum into continued success to close out the season and into the playoffs. Strangely enough, two of the biggest X-factors in determining New England’s playoff success haven’t even been on the field together for most of the season.
Running back Shane Vereen and wide receiver Danny Amendola will ultimately play pivotal roles during the Patriots’ playoff run.
For all the preseason talk about Amendola taking over Welker’s role in the offense—including from yours truly—the oft-injured wideout’s impact on the offense as a whole has been negligible. He’s even taken a back seat to Julian Edelman on several occasions.
The Patriots didn’t sign him to play second fiddle, though. Amendola, when healthy, is their best wide receiver.
Vereen, on the other hand, has been a catalyst when he’s been on the field.
Whether running, catching or pass protecting, Vereen’s reinvigorated the offense in a major way. In two games since his return from a broken wrist, he’s totaled 16 catches and 27 total touches for 163 yards. On the season Vereen’s racked up 322 total yards on 48 touches.
His average yards per touch of 6.71 blows away the rest of New England’s running backs. Brandon Bolden is the closest, with an average of 5.52 yards per touch.
With Stevan Ridley battling chronic fumbles, the Patriots need a back they can rely on to secure the football in key situations. As the playoffs draw nearer and the Patriots advance into postseason play, Vereen will become that back.
Not only is he their most explosive option out of the backfield, but he makes decisive cuts and has a knack for finding open space. Once he finds it, he can score from anywhere on the field.
His outstanding receiving skills will only help him make even more big plays in the clutch.
He’s caught at least seven passes in every game he’s played this season and is virtually impossible to cover with a linebacker. Because teams are forced to devote a safety or cornerback to the all-purpose back, more opportunities and mismatches will emerge for other outside players like Aaron Dobson.
His reliability and versatility not only allow him to make plays, they allow other players around him to do the same.
If the Patriots can get the ball into his hands 20 times a game going forward, they can count on more than 100 yards and a host of other big plays opening up. Rob Gronkowski is unquestionably the Patriots’ best skill player. Brady drives the car and Gronk is the engine.
But Vereen is the sparkplug that fires up for ignition.
Which player is more important to a deep playoff run?
Amendola, on the other hand, is more like the speedometer.
He won’t break many big plays or flash too drastically from one week to the next, but he helps set the pace for the offense. Without the explosiveness of Vereen or sheer athletic dominance of Gronk, Amendola will be instrumental in keeping the chains moving and gaining reliable chunk yardage.
With him and Vereen working in concert, Brady can almost lull opponents to sleep with a barrage of short-to-intermediate passes, only to set defenses up for cataclysmic consequences when Vereen breaks free, or when those two draw enough underneath coverage to hit Dobson down the sideline or Gronk up the seam.
In a Patriots offense that’s already showing signs of familiar efficacy, Amendola and Vereen are two luxuries that will help Brady take things to even greater heights when the games matter most.