All the Patriots want for the holidays is another Super Bowl. With the AFC East clinched and the inside track on the second overall seed and a playoff bye, they’re certainly on the right path.
In order to follow that path to the promised land, the team as a whole obviously needs to play its best football, but there are several players whose importance to the cause trumps that of their teammates.
Tom Brady once again has the Patriots poised for another title shot, but he’s not the only one who needs to play his best over the next month. Here are the five most crucial players to a successful playoff run for the Patriots.
Brady’s importance to the Patriots goes without saying.
Last week I made the case for Brady winning the NFL MVP award. Peyton Manning likely sealed up the award by breaking Brady’s record of 50 touchdowns in a season, but it’s hard to argue any player is more important to their team’s success than Brady, and there’s certainly nobody on the Patriots who means more for their postseason success.
In a season marred by injuries and inconsistent play at key positions, Brady’s been a steadying force and one of the few constants on the field.
Despite lackluster statistics by his otherworldly standards, Brady’s clutch performance have already led the way for 11 wins and had the Patriots within one play of winning three of their four losses.
He’ll need to maintain his penchant for coming up big if the Patriots are to advance through the playoffs.
Once the Patriots lost tight end Aaron Hernandez, all eyes in New England shifted to Vereen as a breakout player.
A gifted runner blessed with outstanding hands and field awareness, he was the logical choice to pick up the slack, not just for Hernandez but for the departed Danny Woodhead as well.
When Stevan Ridley fumbled in Week 1, Vereen stepped in and shredded the Bills for 159 total yards on 21 touches. He seemed on the verge of overtaking Ridley in the running back pecking order and was emerging into the most versatile and dynamic weapon on offense.
Unbeknownst to fans at the time, he played the whole game with a broken wrist, which forced him to miss the next eight games.
During that time the Patriots struggled in the passing game, and Brady was visibly frustrated without a reliable safety net. Much was made of Rob Gronkowski’s longer-than-expected absence, but as NESN’s Doug Kyed detailed, Brady has actually felt the effects of Vereen’s absence even more.
Per Kyed, Brady’s passing yards, quarterback rating and TD-to-INT ratio during contests in which he was missing either of his best playmakers all point to Vereen a more profound impact on the offense than Gronk.
With Gronkowski now on injured reserve, Vereen’s health and continued productivity will be paramount to New England’s playoff success.
When healthy, Talib has proven to be one of the elite man-to-man cover corners in the NFL.
Matched up against Vincent Jackson in Week 3, Talib allowed just 34 yards on three catches, and he intercepted a pass. The following week he blanketed Atlanta's superstar receiver Julio Jones and turned him into a non-factor. If you take away a 49-yard deep ball that came when Talib wasn’t in coverage, Jones notched just 59 yards.
Talib was just getting started.
In Week 5 he held A.J. Green to 58 yards on four catches then followed it up by completly shutting down the unstoppable Jimmy Graham in Week 6. Before leaving the game with an injury, Talib held Graham without a catch.
Since then Talib’s been in and out of the lineup while battling injuries and hasn’t been as effective in coverage. His most notable letdown came against the Cleveland Browns, when Josh Gordon busted out to the tune of 151 yards and a touchdown on seven catches.
Currently fifth in the NFL with 11.5 sacks, Jones has revitalized New England’s once-anemic pass rush.
With Jones and Rob Ninkovich (seven sacks) leading the way, the Patriots have already registered 43 quarterback sacks, their highest total since 2007. That’s right, the last time the Patriots were able to consistently generate as much pressure as they have this season, they went undefeated.
Pressuring the quarterback not only creates sacks but also limits opportunities in the passing game and often leads to turnovers. When quarterbacks get hit they fumble and when they lack ample time to make the right throw, they get intercepted.
Whether facing a stud QB like Manning, blossoming stars like Andrew Luck and Andy Dalton or a proven winner like Joe Flacco, winning the turnover battle is one of the biggest keys to victory. It keeps points off the board and keeps the ball in Brady’s hands.
The easiest way to force turnovers is to pressure the opposing quarterback, and nobody on the Patriots does that as well as Jones.
It may seem strange to include a kicker here and we’re not talking about Adam Vinatieri. But Gostkowski is a major part of the Patriots’ Super Bowl hopes.
Six of New England’s 10 wins this season came by a margin of three points or fewer. All four of its losses came by seven points or fewer.
The Patriots aren’t blowing teams out, and they aren’t getting blown out either. They play teams close, they win by the skin of their teeth and more often than not they stay in it right until the end.
If the Patriots are scrapping through dogfights in the regular season, the games should be even tighter against playoff competition. Gostkowski is enjoying a Pro-Bowl-caliber season with just three missed field goals in 37 attempts. He's also 5-of-6 from 50-plus yards out.
If the regular season is any indication, the Patriots will need him to stay on top of his game heading into January.