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Though the New England Patriots and their fans are used to a "Super Bowl or bust" mentality, it's hard not to reflect and appreciate what the Pats accomplished this regular season. While teams like the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans crumbled amid crippling injuries, New England is somehow 12-4 and the second seed in the AFC, in spite of similarly debilitating circumstances.
Still, with such a wide-open field this season, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the Patriots could capture an unlikely championship. After years of coming up short as the favorites, it would only be fitting for the Pats to finally break through and win their fourth ring as the rare underdogs.
The road starts this Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts, where the Pats will still assume the familiar role of favorites. The Colts have depth issues in certain areas but also a handful of game-changing playmakers who could shift the rhythm of the game. It will be up to a handful of Patriots role players to ensure that Indy's stars do not take control of the game.
With that in mind, here are five X-factors most critical to a Patriots victory this weekend and what specific matchups and tasks they will undertake.
*All stats courtesy Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
5. Steve Gregory
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Steve Gregory takes a lot of flak from Patriots followers, mostly because he rarely makes a flashy play. Admittedly, Gregory has taken a few head-scratching angles to tackles during his two-year Foxboro tenure, but the 31-year-old veteran is a heady player who generally makes the correct read.
One of Gregory's defining roles is his positioning over the opposing tight end. Gregory is almost always lined up to the strong side of the formation and will occasionally find himself in man coverage against tight ends. The Patriots also like to play a lot of Cover 1 Robber, and Gregory will play the "robber" role of playing an underneath zone in the middle of the field.
Well guess where Colts tight end Coby Fleener almost exclusively works? The short-to-intermediate middle of the fied. Of Fleener's 91 targets on the year, 53 have come in the middle of the field, zero to 19 yards down the field.
That's the territory Gregory most often patrols; even while Robber coverages actually assign a linebacker as the tight end's man defender, Fleener and Gregory should cross paths often. Fortunately, Fleener should be a decent matchup for Gregory, who has more trouble with speedy receivers in open space. For all his strengths, Fleener is certainly not a mismatch in that department.
T.Y. Hilton may be the Colts' top receiving option, but Fleener is a reliable second fiddle. Gregory will not be the tight end's only defender, but he might be the most frequent.
4. Kenbrell Thompkins
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Indianapolis' secondary depth is a bit tenuous following injuries to Greg Toler and LaRon Landry last week. However, its physical press-coverage style gives it a chance against the Patriots' plethora of small slot receivers. The Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets have ended recent Patriots seasons by disrupting the passing game's rhythm, and the Colts at least play the scheme to accomplish the same.
However, Indy's vertically challenged secondary has trouble with bigger receivers—just look at the receivers who fared best against it this season. Aaron Dobson would normally be the natural Pats candidate to exploit his size advantage, but Dobson has not practiced this week with a foot injury, making his participation Saturday night highly unlikely.
Thus, the onus falls upon Kenbrell Thompkins. Thompkins has been marginalized a bit in the second half of the year, as the rookie has not caught a pass since Week 13. However, it's worth noting that he did battle a hip injury that caused him to miss three games, and he was active Week 17. Now healthy again, he constitutes New England's sole receiver over 6'0".
Thompkins' strength lies in his route running rather than his straight-line speed, which does not make him an ideal complement to the trio of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen. Nevertheless, even as a change-up option, the Patriots will need an outside-the-numbers presence. Thompkins is currently the best candidate to fulfill that role and should have opportunities this week.
3. Sealver Siliga
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The battered middle of the Patriots defense took another hit this week, with Brandon Spikes being placed on season-ending injured reserve. As the team's best run defender, Spikes' downhill style and tone-setting physicality will be difficult to replace.
Defensive tackle Sealver Siliga is one player who might see an uptick in playing time as a consequence. Siliga's stock is already pointing up, as his size has been an invaluable asset in run defense since his promotion to the active roster before Week 13. At 6'2" and 325 pounds, Siliga is a bit reminiscent of what the Patriots used to have in Kyle Love.
Like Love, Siliga is no game-changer, but his size has stabilized the interior in some critical short-yardage situations recently. As ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss notes, Pats defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has been appreciative of how quickly Siliga has caught on to his responsibilities:
He’s a real quiet guy, but an extremely hard worker. ... He sits in the classroom and gets all the information and asks good questions. ... He’s a strong guy, he’s a big guy, he’s got good size about him, so [he’s] somebody that we try to get in the game to hold the point and be strong at the line of scrimmage and play with good technique.
Indy only ran the ball on 39.3 percent of its offensive plays during the regular season, 22nd in the league, so it is not a run-dominant team. But Donald Brown has shown explosive glimpses, and Siliga is suddenly an extremely important component of the Patriots' run defense for the rest of this season.
2. Marcus Cannon
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Robert Mathis is technically listed as a right outside linebacker, meaning that he will typically line up over left tackle Nate Solder. Indeed, I noted earlier this week how the majority of Mathis' pass-rushing snaps come from the blind side.
However, that "majority" only constitutes 53.5 percent of Mathis' pass-rushing snaps, and a sizable portion of the minority comes from the offense's right side. Consequently, right tackle Marcus Cannon will also see a hefty dose of Indy's All-Pro linebacker Saturday night.
Cannon has generally held up well since taking over as the starter following Sebastian Vollmer's season-ending leg injury. In six starts, the third-year product has conceded no sacks and just four hits on Tom Brady. Against the likes of Terrell Suggs and Cameron Wake, that is pretty solid production.
Cannon could stand to clean up the penalties (three in the past two games), but similar performance is imperative this weekend. Mathis' speed could be an issue for the hefty tackle—Suggs did slip by Cannon a couple times to get close to Brady—though proper footwork and technique should permit Cannon to stay in front of Mathis, allowing his superior strength to take over.
As Mathis demonstrated last week with his momentum-altering strip-sack, it only takes one mistake to alter a game's result. Cannon has been mostly flawless as a starter, but he might have to be totally flawless against Mathis.
1. LeGarrette Blount
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At this point, characterizing LeGarrette Blount as an "X-factor" is underrating his importance to the New England offense.
Blount has stabilized the lead back role after Stevan Ridley's chronic fumblitis threatened to undermine the position, and the Pats have subsequently adopted a more physical offensive identity. In New England's final two regular-season wins, the Patriots ran 77 times and passed on just 50 plays, a reflection of how the Gronk-less offense has adopted a highly efficient clock-killing philosophy.
Blount's hard-charging running style has been a joy to watch, as well as shockingly productive. In the final quarter of the season, his average of 6.0 yards per carry was third among all players with at least 30 carries, trailing only Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy, per Pro-Football-Focus.com.
The ground game might be the path of least resistance for the Pats offense this week, as the middle of the Indy defense is particularly soft against the run. Pounding Blount up the middle should yield consistent yardage, keeping New England's offense ahead of the chains. For a passing game that does not hit many big vertical shots, that is absolutely essential.
It's worth noting that the Pats take a back-by-committee approach, so Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen will also receive a share of the carries. But Blount has started and ended recent games. So long as he continues receiving the majority of the carries, he will play an underrated role in how far the Patriots advance this postseason.