By: Bob George
Scratch Brandon Spikes off this list. And the beat goes on.
If the Patriots do make it to the Super Bowl, let alone win it, the rash of injuries the Patriots have had to deal with will make this world championship the most remarkable of all the titles won by Boston area teams since 2002. Your favorite is perhaps Super Bowl XXXVI or the 2004 World Series. The 2007 Red Sox or the 2004 Patriots were the most dominant teams. The titles won by the Celtics and Bruins were more wistful than anything else. But if this Patriot team at least makes it to Super Bowl XLVIII, it would be a supreme accomplishment perhaps unparalleled in these parts.
Spikes, the latest Patriot to hit the IR thanks to his knees, is generally considered the best run stopper on the Patriot defense. The Indianapolis Colts, who come to town Saturday night for a Divisional Playoff date with the Patriots, haven’t had Edgerrin James for quite some time and don’t have a super bruising back or someone who can slice and dice the Patriot front seven. They do have Donald Brown, but he is only merely good, not great. But not having Spikes out there casts this game in a slightly different light.
Hightower is among several important parts of Saturday night’s game.
(USA TODAY Images)
The Patriots are currently favored to win Saturday night by 7 ½ points. The Patriots are at home, it’s a night game, but the frigid weather of right now will be gone by Saturday night. Temperatures are expected to be in the high 40s to the low 50s. In other words, Andrew Luck won’t be frozen solid in Gillette Stadium. Neither will Tom Brady, of course, but when you play the Colts at Foxborough, with or without Peyton Manning, you want the weather to be as bad as possible.
Many Patriot fans are thinking beyond Saturday night. If you happen to be one of those people, first of all, don’t introduce yourself to Bill Belichick and share those thoughts with him. Second, ditto for Tedy Bruschi. Third, if you really believe that the Patriots have even a remote chance to hold up football’s silver chalice at MetLife Stadium next month, we’re going to have to try and figure out what it is that makes you so confident.
This writer will concede that it is possible – not definite, but possible – that the Patriots can at least make it to Super Bowl XLVIII, being held at Exit 16W this year. It would be wonderful if the Patriots could once again avoid a trip to Denver, but even if that be the case, the Patriots know they can beat the Broncos, Belichick and Manning are no strangers to each other, and the Broncos are much weaker on defense without Von Miller. It would still be better if the Patriots, if they do beat Indianapolis Saturday night, to be at home for the AFC Championship Game against San Diego, a team that rightfully shouldn’t be in the playoffs at all, and is not guaranteed to bring their “A” game to the table in any game they might play.
If the Patriots do make it to Super Bowl XLVIII, and if they should somehow break through and knock off a better (on paper) NFC representative, here are the top five men who will be the most responsible for that to happen.
#5 – Donte Hightower
To the lifeboats. This guy? With Spikes on IR, ‘fraid so.
Hightower will finally need to live up to his draft pedigree and play out of his mind. He will need to be studly against the run, no matter which team he has to face. Hightower loses a little in pass coverage, and if some team manages to design an offensive game plan which attacks Hightower in pass coverage, the Patriots could be in trouble. Belichick and Matt Patricia have to find a way to not allow that to happen, while at the same time somehow making Hightower the focal point of stopping the run. And then Hightower has to come through and play the best three football games of his young career, and stop choking like he has been prone to do over the last few months.
#4 – (tie) Shane Vereen, and one of the following: LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley
Tom Brady cannot be the one guy on offense to get the job done.
John Elway did not win any Super Bowls until he had Terrell Davis. When Brady won his Super Bowls, he had Antowain Smith for two of them and Corey Dillon for the third. The Patriots have a decent stable of running backs, all with a unique talent set but all with some liabilities.
Vereen has to do what Kevin Faulk used to do, minus the fumbling. Vereen is the situational back, who can both catch the ball and run the ball. Vereen has been especially effective as a receiver. Brady has to have this guy as an option out of the backfield, especially on third down.
As for Blount versus Ridley, Patriot Nation is going to side with Blount thanks to his big game against Buffalo and Ridley’s penchant for fumbling. Blount cannot be expected to drop 190 yards rushing on the Colts, even though they are poor at run defense. But he is capable of another big game. Ridley can also pick up the rushing slack, and the fact that he didn’t fumble in the rain against the Bills, that in and of itself is uplifting for all Patriot loyalists.
#3 – Aqib Talib
When Talib went down with his hamstring injury against Baltimore last January, any hope of the Patriots returning to the Super Bowl died right then and there. Talib will draw T.Y. Hilton on Saturday night, who is morphing into the newest Marvin Harrison. Hilton is no Harrison, at least not yet, but he is someone the Patriots have to pay attention to.
But then there’s Demaryius Thomas. Keenan Allen. Steve Smith. Michael Crabtree. Golden Tate. Marques Colston. Talib will draw these guys. How will he do? Or better yet, will he stay healthy so we can at least find out?
Talib has to stay healthy. Then he has to play out of his mind. Be physical and jam the receiver where possible. Take him out of the game.
Because the Patriots cannot afford a repeat of last year with Talib limping off the field with a game-ending injury, which would then turn into a season-ending injury.
#2 – Tom Brady
Not enough is made of Brady’s playoff record since Super Bowl XXXIX. The Patriots are 7-7 in playoff games since that last Patriot Super Bowl win. Prior to those 14 postseason games, Brady was 9-0 in the postseason. Brady is now 36 years old. He simply isn’t what he used to be.
If Brady can rely on a solid running game to help him out, Brady can then manage the rest of the game like only he can do. Brady must protect the ball and not try and force the play or throw ill-advised passes. He needs to regain his old patient self, not rely on big passing numbers to win the game, and concentrate on situational football. The only real equals of Brady in this tournament are Manning and Drew Brees; the others don’t have the pedigree or the body of work.
Brady knows that the sun is beginning to set on his long and illustrious day in the sun. His chance to win that immortal fourth Super Bowl lasts only so long.
#1 – Bill Belichick
There is no other coach in this tournament that can even somewhat approach Belichick in the ability to coach his team to a Super Bowl win. Belichick can find ways to game plan and win when merely good coaches would be stumped.
The problem is that his players have to come through for him and play like they can play. Belichick can tell them what to do, but he cannot go out there and do it for them. Belichick must therefore be on top of his game from a psychological standpoint. He has to motivate his players and prepare them like never before. Whichever opponent comes up, it won’t be enough to devise the right game plan. Belichick cannot afford to be outcoached on the field during the game. He has to exert his superiority over inferior coaching competition and do what he does.