Which New England Patriots Players Are Most Important for a Playoff Run?
The New England Patriots are heading back to the playoffs for the 11th time in the last 13 seasons. Given that kind of consistency, some might think that this was just another year of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick doing what they do best, but in reality, this has been one of the most impressive years of their time together.
The Patriots are not a perfect team. Injuries have hit them hard this year and knocked multiple defensive captains and offensive weapons from the lineup. Yet the Patriots keep on winning, and even when they lose, they always fight down to the wire.
Which Patriots players will be key to a run at the Lombardi Trophy? Here are our top five!
Stevan Ridley has had an up-and-down season, again struggling with fumbles and spending a good chunk of time on the bench.
Through 15 weeks Ridley has 166 carries for 699 yards and seven touchdowns, a significant drop from his breakout 2012 when he had 290 carries for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Despite his inconsistency holding onto the ball, Ridley remains the most talented and explosive running back on the Patriots offense. Without Rob Gronkowski, the Pats will need their best weapons playing their best, and that includes Ridley.
Ridley showed just how hard he can run against the Baltimore Ravens with two impressive carries on the final game-sealing drive, where he picked up first downs on both. Ridley showed pure strength and desire, carrying multiple Raven defenders with him.
Even if he's just worked into the game later, as has been the case since sitting out against the Texans, Ridley will still have a chance to spark the Patriots offense. He'll have to make the most of his chances, even if they're limited.
Can Ridley re-emerge as a significant threat for the offense? The Patriots will need him to in the playoffs if they're to be at their best. He looked primed against the Ravens, and the carries he got in crunch time should help build his confidence.
Ridley might be ready to put an exclamation point on what has been a disappointing season.
Rob Ninkovich has been one of the MVPs of the Patriots defense this season. He hasn't missed a game and has done whatever the coaches ask of him, whether it's rushing the passer, dropping into coverage or a combination of both.
Ninkovich has put up another solid season, but the Pats will need him to be one of the best players on the field in the playoffs. Ninkovich has had a knack in recent seasons for making clutch plays, though there haven't been quite as many this season.
Those clutch plays were once again on display against the Ravens, where Ninkovich recorded a sack and crashed down to make a fourth-down stop in the third quarter that helped keep the Ravens off the scoreboard.
Ninkovich, along with fellow bookend Chandler Jones, need to be the two best defenders on the field for the Patriots defense to turn in another dominant performance like we saw out of it in Baltimore.
If Jones and Ninkovich are getting after the quarterback and maintaining the edge of the defense it will really make the entire defense better, especially if they can continue to come through with the clutch plays.
Julian Edelman has had a breakout season in 2013 with 96 catches for 991 yards and six touchdowns. He has ably replaced Wes Welker as the top slot option for Tom Brady but is once again slated to be a free agent after this season.
In the playoffs is where Edelman can really show how good he is. Against the best defenses, on the biggest stages, it's a prime time for the receiver to show what he's really got in front of a national audience.
Against the Ravens, Edelman looked every bit as elite as Welker ever did in this offense. He was targeted a team-high 11 times and had seven catches for 77 yards, many of which were in tight coverage.
In the playoffs, your best players have to play their best games, and Edelman still has something to prove. If he can come through in the clutch and deliver the same kind of big plays he's made all season long, his asking price this offseason will continue to rise.
After a white-hot start, Aqib Talib settled in this season, missing three games with a hip injury and going without an interception in his last eight games.
Part of that is because teams are not targeting him as much. Talib has still done a good job taking away the top opposing weapon, whether a tight end or receiver, but for the Patriots to make a serious Super Bowl run, they'll need Talib to play at the elite level he was at early in the season.
With Logan Ryan picking up two interceptions against the Ravens, it looks like Talib's impact is once again having a positive trickle-down effect on the Patriots defense.
Talib will be a key part of every game plan going forward, and if he's shutting down his man, things will be a lot easier for the Patriots defense.
He can expect to see some combination of A.J. Green, Demaryius Thomas and even Dwayne Bowe in the playoffs, and all will present a great challenge for Talib. If he can stop those guys, the Pats will have a chance to win.
There's no bigger X-factor for the Patriots than Tom Brady. Should Brady catch fire, the Patriots could be unbeatable.
Brady has put together back-to-back seasons of great performances in the divisional round. In 2012 against the Texans, he threw for 344 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Against the Broncos in 2011, he threw for 363 yards, six touchdowns and one interception.
The problem has been that Brady hasn't played nearly as well in the last two AFC Championships, where he's combined for just one touchdown and four interceptions. Granted those performances came against the savvy veteran defense of the Baltimore Ravens.
Can Brady string together multiple flawless games in the playoffs? It has been a while since he did so, but the potential is always there with a legend like Brady.
He looked solid against the Ravens defense on Sunday, granted that was a different Baltimore defense than he's used to seeing. Still, it was a mistake-free performance, and he was able to come through with a clutch drive when he needed one.
The signs continue to look positive that Brady and the Patriots offense are peaking at the right time of the year.
If New England's star quarterback decides it's time to will his team to its fourth championship, there might not be anyone who can stop him.