As I’ve written a couple times the past week, I’m having a tough time getting an exact bead on this Patriots team. Of course, this is a 13-3 team with homefield and the greatest quarterback of all time coming off an MVP season. So maybe I’m a little silly for thinking this season is anything different than what we’ve seen over the last 17 seasons.
Still, each team is unique and if there’s anything about this team that stands out it’s that major injuries barely registered with them. In past years losing players the caliber of Julian Edelman and Dont’a Hightower would’ve at cost the team another loss or two, and they would’ve have locked up the top seed. But this team did, and that counts for a lot because we know how tough the Pats are at home in January.
Outside of the obvious Tom Brady, here are five Patriots that I think are key to the Pats’ Super Bowl hopes.
- Kyle Van Noy — After losing Hightower it was Van Noy who stepped into the leadership position on the defense but then he hurt his calf and missed the final quarter of the season. At the time of his injury Van Noy was really coming on. He was playing within the defense and making big plays all over the field. It’s absolutely critical that he return to that form in the playoffs. The Patriots need him in multiple ways, his athleticism on the second level, his pass rush ability and his experience in the defense make him the best linebacker on the roster now and his return to a full-time role would be a huge boost to the defense.
- Chris Hogan — The offense stagnated a bit down the stretch especially on third down, where Hogan was the most targeted receiver prior to his shoulder injury. Getting back that reliable threat for Brady and the offense could suddenly put the Pats offense right back on track of unstoppability. Hogan did try to return in early December but wasn’t the same player and then sat out the rest of the year and continues to be limited in practice. He’s a huge X factor. If forced to rely on Kenny Britt and Phillip Dorsett I worry that the offense’s struggles at times could continue.
- James White — Losing White was another big factor for the third down struggles. Although he’s not the all-everything back we thought he had grown into being after the last Super Bowl, White is still incredibly effective in his third down role as a pass catcher who has the slipperiness to pick up first downs after catching the ball behind the line of scrimmage. A combination or Dion Lewis and White would be one of the best playoff pairings at running back that the Pats have had since 2004 with Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk.
- Trey Flowers — Flowers had a coming out party last playoffs and is looking to build on that performance. With much more uncertainty up front for this playoff run, Flowers is left as the only truly impactful pass rush on the roster. Van Noy’s return would take some heat off of him, but regardless Flowers should get plenty of blocking attention and will have to beat double teams if he’s going to make the kind of plays he made in last season’s title run.
- Rob Gronkowski — Outside of Brady, no other Patriot is capable of taking over a game like Gronk. The last time we saw him in the playoffs he was helping Brady almost make an impossible last comeback drive against the Broncos in 2015 AFC championship. Gronk had an impossible 4th down catch and a last-second touchdown to bring the Patriots within a two-point conversion of taking the eventual Super Bowl champs to overtime. He was also open on that final two-point play but let’s try to forget about that. Gronk should be primed, and against the Titans and perhaps the Steelers, the tight end might carry the Pats to Minnesota on his surgically repaired back.