The New England Patriots could face the Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs or Houston Texans in the divisional round of the playoffs, but there's one opponent they still have to beat: the injury bug.
It's rare that the Patriots' playoff hopes are pinned on any one man, unless that man's name is either quarterback Tom Brady or head coach Bill Belichick, but this year appears to be giving a new exception to that rule. The Patriots are 2-4 in their past six games, which is one fewer game than they have been without wide receiver Julian Edelman.
And if the Patriots are going to advance in the postseason, Edelman is one of the guys that is being counted on the most to make it happen.
The Patriots' offensive statistics are baffling before and after Edelman's injury. From Weeks 1-10, the Patriots were the league's best offense at converting third downs, with a success rate of 48.7 percent. Since Edelman's injury, the Patriots were the league's sixth-worst at converting third downs, at a 32 percent success rate.
That's because Edelman was targeted on a team-high 18 third-down pass attempts and tied for a team-high 14 third-down receptions from Weeks 1-10. Eleven of Edelman's 14 third-down receptions went for a first down.
Another storyline that has developed since Edelman's injury is the never-ending amount of pressure on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The Patriots have had problems in pass protection all year, but those problems were never quite as evident as they became when Edelman was injured.
According to Pro Football Focus, from Weeks 1-10, Brady was pressured on 30.6 percent of his dropbacks and averaged 2.13 seconds to attempt a pass. From Weeks 11-17, Brady was pressured on 41.6 percent of his dropbacks (a rise of 11 percent) and averaged 2.45 seconds to attempt a pass (a rise of .32 seconds). In short, Brady has been holding the ball longer and is being pressured more often; the correlation is easy to infer.
It's no surprise, then, that Brady's overall numbers have taken a huge hit without Edelman. In nine games from Weeks 1-10, Brady completed 251 of his 370 pass attempts (67.8 percent) for 3,043 yards, with 24 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 111.1 passer rating. In seven games since Edelman's injury, Brady completed 151 of his 254 passes (59.5 percent) for 1,727 yards, 12 touchdowns, four picks and a passer rating of 89.1.
Edelman is Brady's security blanket. Of course, the offense has taken a step back without him in the fold. His return should help stabilize that unit, but is it really realistic to expect one man to spell the turnaround of the entire offense?
Brady is the Patriots' most important offensive player. Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski are neck-and-neck right behind Brady on that list. Edelman's name is just one domino in a large sequence of events that would lead to the Patriots offense getting back on track, but without that domino in place, the whole operation could fall out of line.