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Stepping up: 5 relatively unheralded Patriots who could hold key to postseason success 01.08.15 at 12:35 am ET
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If teams try and take away Rob Gronkowski this postseason, Tim Wright could be in for more work. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

If teams try and take away Rob Gronkowski this postseason, Tim Wright could be in for more work. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

While Saturday’€™s matchup will be a showdown between some of the more high-profile players in the AFC, there are more than a few individuals who are under-the-radar types who will likely play a sizable role in the outcome of the contest. When it comes to New England players who could be asked to rise to the occasion on Saturday –€” and beyond –€” here are our five choices:

Cornerback Kyle Arrington: Before he went down with an injury late in the season, the slot corner had become one of the most durable defensive backs in the league — his streak of 83 consecutive regular-season games played was one of the best on the team, a mark that stretched all the way back to 2009. Because no quarterback wants to risk targeting Darrelle Revis or Brandon Browner on a regular basis, when the Patriots have faced elite passing games — as they will in the postseason –€” this New England pass defense is only as it as its third corner. Regardless of who has been in the game, when the Patriots have been in their sub defense, we’€™ve already seen several really good quarterbacks go after the third or fourth option at corner. While Arrington has demonstrated an ability as one of the better slot corners in the league, he also brings nice depth to the secondary, and could potential cover over any deficiencies that could pop up in the playoffs. Look for him to have a central role this postseason, especially with a handful of intriguing matchups possibly looming. (Denver’€™s Wes Welker? Indy’€™s Reggie Wayne? Seattle’€™s Doug Baldwin? Green Bay’€™s Randall Cobb?)

Guard Dan Connolly: When he’€™s been healthy, Connolly has been one of the most consistent offensive linemen on the New England roster. (Ryan Hannable had an excellent breakdown here of what it’€™s meant to have a healthy Connolly –€” as well as the other four starters — up front this season for the Patriots.) But the veteran has struggled with injury over the course of the season, and has missed three games this year with a variety of issues, including a concussion and an ankle injury. He was not in the lineup for the final two games of the year, and left tackle Nate Solder appeared to struggle at times as a result. A healthy Connolly would go a long way toward stabilizing the offensive line, and provide more time in the pocket for quarterback Tom Brady. If he’€™s not at 100 percent, it could make for a dicey situation for Brady’€™s blind side.

Defensive lineman Sealver Siliga: Siliga has performed very well as a complimentary piece along the defensive line, working alongside the likes of veterans like Vince Wilfork and Alan Branch, becoming an integral part of New England’€™s rotation of defensive linemen. The Utah product is versatile, and just as adept at getting after the passer as he is to two-gapping and holding up offensive linemen to allow linebackers and fellow defensive linemen to make plays. Ever since he came back from designated for return-injured reserve in Week 14 against the Chargers, he’€™s been a steady and consistent presence, playing 61 percent of the defensive snaps over the last three weeks. Look for that role to continue to expand going forward into the postseason.

Special teamer Matthew Slater: This isn’€™t so much Slater, but more of a nod to special teams as a whole. (From this viewpoint, using the special teams captain only seems fitting.) As a grouping, they’€™ve managed to distinguish themselves as one of the best and most impactful group of special teamers in the league. Every week, there’€™s some sort of momentum-changing play. Whether it’€™s been a blocked field-goal attempt, blocked punt, punter kick return or a big coverage tackle, they have become a sizable part of New England’€™s success, and a big reason the Patriots have gotten as far as they have this year. It’€™s not just the potential high-impact plays, but the work of grunts like Nate Ebner, Brandon Bolden and Tavon Wilson that has continued to allow New England the success that it has had on special teams.

Tight end Tim Wright: Wright has distinguished himself as the most dependable pass-catcher in recent Patriots’€™ history, having caught 79 percent of the passes that were sent his way over the course of the season — a high for any offensive skill position player who was targeted at least 20 times in a single season. The tight end broke the previous mark of 77 percent, set by five different pass catchers, most recently Danny Woodhead (who caught 34 of 44 passes in 2010). Of course, that sure-handed skill is nothing new for Wright, who now has a two-year total as a pro (with the Buccaneers and Patriots) of 73 percent, a remarkable total for any receiver. With the focus of opposing defenses likely to be on fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski, Wright will almost surely have his opportunities in the passing game.

Read More: 2015 playoffs, Dan Connolly, Kyle Arrington, Matthew Slater
Patriots offensive line at full strength vital to offense, Tom Brady’s success 01.07.15 at 7:00 am ET
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Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman — three very important pieces to the Patriots’ offense, but are they the most important?

Not be to overlooked is the Patriots’ offensive line, especially with the group likely getting back to full strength this week against Baltimore, as Dan Connolly is set to return. This will be especially important going against a Ravens defense, which finished second in the regular season in sacks with 49.

“I’€™m just excited to be back at practice,” Connolly said Tuesday after missing the last two games with a knee injury. “I’€™m going to do my best to work in and try to get as healthy as I can. But it’€™s good to be back out.”

All indications are the Patriots will get their starting offensive line back this week — (left tackle to right tackle) Nate Solder, Connolly, Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell and Sebastian Vollmer.

Just how important is a healthy offense line for the Patriots offense and Brady to be successful?

  • Solder, Connolly, Stork, Wendell, Vollmer (7-1 record) — Weeks 5, 8-14: Brady: 214-320 (66.9 percent), 2,433 yards, 21 TDs, 6 INTs, 103.6 QB rating, 4 sacks
  • Any combination besides above (5-3 record) — Weeks 1-4, 6, 7, 15, 16: Brady: 160-263 (60.8 percent), 1,675 yards, 12 TDs, 3 INTs, 89.8 QB rating, 17 sacks

It’s pretty clear having the starting offensive line together makes a huge difference for the offense, as well as Brady in a number of different ways. The biggest difference is sacks. In the same number of games (eight) there is a 13 sack difference between when the starting offensive line is playing and when they are not. In games not started by the regular offensive line, Brady has been sacked multiple times in five of the eight, and four times twice. In games started by the starting offensive line, they haven’t allowed a multiple sack game and had four games allowing zero sacks, which will be especially important this weekend against a strong Ravens defense.

“They’€™re great,” Connolly said of the Ravens’ pass rush. “[Elvis] Dumervil has got 19 sacks. They do a great job of getting to the quarterback. We’€™ve faced a lot of good D-lines this season. That’€™s nothing new in the NFL. It’€™s a lot of pressure on us to do a good job. That’€™s what we try to do every week. It’€™s our job to make sure Tom [Brady] stays upright, so that’€™s what we’€™re going to try to do this week, too.”

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Read More: 2015 playoffs, Bryan Stork, Dan Connolly, Nate Solder
Patriots OL needs to be better going into postseason 12.28.14 at 7:57 pm ET
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Ryan Wendell

Ryan Wendell

FOXBORO — If there is one thing to be hesitant about going into the postseason for the Patriots offense, it is the play of its offensive line.

Without starters Dan Connolly (knee) and Sebastian Vollmer (back), forcing a starting offensive line (left-to-right) of Nate Solder, Josh Kline, Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell and Marcus Cannon Sunday against the Bills — Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo, particularly Garoppolo in the second half, were under constant pressure all game long.

Overall, the Bills hit Patriots quarterbacks six times and recorded four sacks in the game. This comes after last week’s game against the Jets where the Patriots were reshuffling their line all game without Connolly to give Brady more time, but allowed a season-high four sacks and 11 quarterback hits.

“We didn’t play very well. We just didn’t do our jobs,” Wendell said Sunday.

The Patriots did some reshuffling again against the Bills, as late in the first half the Patriots subbed out Kline, and replaced him with Wendell at left guard and Cameron Fleming at right guard. Then, just before the half Solder appeared to injure his right leg on a play he was called for holding on. He finished the last minute of the half before limping to the locker room. In the second half, Cannon moved to left tackle, so the line went: Cannon, Kline, Stork, Wendell, Fleming.

Missing key players in Connolly and Vollmer, then losing Solder in the game made things difficult to get any sort of continuity up front.

“It was a good opportunity to get some other guys some reps,” Wendell said. “We’€™re going to need everybody moving forward. You never knew who’€™s going to get called up, so a game like this was a great opportunity to get a lot of those guys more reps that they normally don’€™t get.”

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Read More: Dan Connolly, Nate Solder, ryan wendell, Sebastian Vollmer
Patriots offensive line sees sack-free streak come to an end against Packers 12.02.14 at 9:00 am ET
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Dan Connolly and the rest of the Patriots offensive line saw their sack-free streak broken Sunday against the Packers. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Dan Connolly and the rest of the Patriots offensive line saw their sack-free streak broken Sunday against the Packers. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

For a Patriots’ offensive line that was riding a sack-free streak, Sunday afternoon against the Packers represented a bit of a letdown.

The New England offensive entered its contest against Green Bay with an impressive string of sack-free football: Quarterback Tom Brady had not been brought down for two-plus games, a streak of 165 minutes and 35 seconds of game action that dated all the way back to the first half of the Nov. 2 win over the Broncos in Foxboro. (Brady was not sacked in the wins over Indy or Detroit.)

But the Packers got to Brady down in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game when, on a third and 9, the quarterback was sandwiched by Green Bay’s Mike Neal and Mike Daniels. It was a sizable turning point in the contest, as the lost yardage not only forced a field-goal attempt by the Patriots, it also was enough to push kicker Stephen Gostkowski just out of range, as he missed a 47-yarder. With a five-point lead, the Packers got the ball back and didn’t relinquish it.

“It’€™s our job to make sure [Brady] stays upright,” said guard Dan Connolly on a conference call with the New England media Monday afternoon. “Especially being the last [offensive] play of the game, that’€™s not how we wanted to end our game. Obviously, we’€™ve got some work to do and we’€™re going to try to move forward and make sure he’€™s upright as much as we can.”

Brady is on pace to have one of the lowest sack totals for his career — the quarterback has been sacked 15 times through 12 games. (By way of comparison, he was sacked a whopping 32 times through 12 games last season.) If that rate holds over the final four games of the season, that would leave him with 20 sacks on the year, the second-lowest total of his career. (He was sacked 16 times in 2009.)

Connolly and the rest of the New England offensive line will get a chance to start another positive streak Sunday night in San Diego. While they do have some interesting pass-rushing possibilities with the likes of Cory Liuget (3.5 sacks) and Dwight Freeney (2 sacks), the Chargers are still just 29th in the league in sacks with 18.

“I know this is a good defense, and they’€™ve had a lot of success so far this year,” Connolly said when asked about the Chargers. “They’€™ve got good guys on their front, good pass rushers: Dwight Freeney and guys like that, so it’€™s going to be really important for us this week to really focus who we’€™re playing against and just get to know those players. We haven’€™t played them in a while, so we have to get familiar with that team again and get to know the players we’€™ll be facing.”

Read More: Corey Liuget, Dan Connolly, dwight freeney, Tom Brady
Patriots making themselves at home in San Diego leading up to Sunday’s game at 6:00 am ET
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The upcoming week will be anything but ordinary for the Patriots as they traveled directly to San Diego from Green Bay following Sunday’s game and will hold a week of practice in warm, sunny California — over 2,500 miles away from their Gillette Stadium home — as they get ready for Sunday’s matchup with the Chargers.

But, according to the Patriots it is just another week, only in a different location.

“I don’€™t think there’€™s going to be very much different,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said on a conference call Monday. “We’€™re going to put the same effort and time and preparation into that we normally would. The coaches are going to be doing everything that they normally do. The only thing that’€™s different is the location that we’€™re doing it in. Other than that, there’€™s no difference. We’€™re all professionals. We understand what we have to do and we’€™re going to do it.”

The Patriots will be spending 10 days on the road as they left for Green Bay last Saturday, and won’t return to New England until early Monday morning following Sunday’s night game. With the team spending almost every waking minute together, it has a training camp like feel.

“There’€™s definitely a feeling of training camp where we’€™re all together,” offensive lineman Dan Connolly said. “But it’€™s important for us to not be distracted by nice weather and things that are going on out here and realize that we have a job to do this week and we have to treat it as much like a regular week as we can and still prepare for the game that we have on Sunday.”

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Read More: Dan Connolly, Green Bay Packers, Matthew Slater, Miami Dolphins
Protection Pattern: Tom Brady relishing more time to throw 11.19.14 at 1:44 pm ET
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More time in the pocket has benefited Tom Brady of late. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

More time in the pocket has benefited Tom Brady of late. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

FOXBORO — There is no denying Tom Brady and the Patriots offense were a different team in the second half than in the first half in Sunday’s 42-20 win over the Colts.

In the first half, Brady went a pedestrian 10-for-19 passing for 84 yards with two interceptions, including one with less than two minutes remaining — arguably one of the worst throws he’s made in his 15 seasons, as the throw hung in the air for a lifetime before Colts safety Mike Adams picked it off.

The Colts scored a touchdown a few plays later and the Patriots got the ball back with 55 seconds remaining, but Bill Belichick didn’t mess around and kneeled out the clock sending the Patriots to the locker room with just a 14-10 lead — perhaps sending a message to Brady and the offense.

“I always need to do a better job,” said Brady. “Obviously we were there at halftime, I didn’t play as well as I am capable of. I have to do a lot better job. It always starts with me and that is where my focus is. Hopefully I can put together four quarters of good stuff this week.”

The second half was a completely different story as the offense scored touchdowns on four of its five possessions and the only one they didn’t score was the last possession of the game when they were running out the clock late in the fourth quarter. While the ground game was exceptional (Jonas Gray’s 201 yards rushing, four touchdowns), but Brady was a major reason as well. He was 9-for-11 passing for 173 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. (One of the incompletions was a Julian Edelman drop over the middle.)

So, what changed in the second half? Brady had more time to throw.

The quarterback looked much more comfortable in the pocket in the second half, as he was given more time to throw. By our calculations, in the second half Brady averaged 2.61 seconds from snap to release, compared to 2.20 second in the first half — almost half a second difference.

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Read More: Bill Belichick, Bryan Stork, Dan Connolly, Patriots offense
Offensive line’s ‘trust’ leading the way in Patriots’ 4-game win streak 10.29.14 at 1:34 pm ET
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Dan Connolly, Bryan Stork and the rest of the offensive line have protected Tom Brady well of late. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Ryan Wendell, Bryan Stork, Dan Connolly and the rest of the offensive line have protected Tom Brady well of late. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

FOXBORO — After Week 4’€™s blowout loss to Kansas City, the Patriots offense ranked 24th in the NFL averaging 20 points a game. After Week 8’€™s blowout win over the Bears, the Patriots offense now ranks third in the NFL averaging 29.8 points per game.

One of the biggest reasons why is the familiarity the offensive line now has with one another.

“Those guys have really dealt with a lot of change,” quarterback Tom Brady said before practice on Wednesday refercing to the unit getting a new coach in Dave DeGuglielmo after Dante Scarnecchia retired after 32 years in the NFL following last season.

“This year, it started back in the offseason, and [they] have really worked through that through training camp. And then different players have kind of come and gone and been injured from the start of the season, before the start of the season — with Logan [Mankins] and then being able to really adjust to that.”

Even though the Patriots have used three different starting offensive lines during the four-game win streak due to concussions for Bryan Stork and Dan Connolly, they have continued to rotate players in and out even within games, so everyone is ready to step in at any time and be on the same page as players who have been starting every week.

“I think those guys are really taking it as a challenge of the mental toughness,” Brady added. “At this point, [they’ve] really settled into kind of the group that they are and the group they want to be. They’€™re playing with a lot of toughness. They’€™re playing with a lot of commitment to what their coach is asking them to do. We’€™ve had some growing pains that we’€™re all trying to get used to earlier in the year, but I think we’€™re playing at a much better level.”

Although sacks are sometimes overrated when measuring the success or failure of an offensive line, Brady was sacked nine times in the first four games of the season, compared to only three the last four games. Sunday marked the first time Brady was not sacked in a game since Week 4 last year against the Falcons.

Brady has also been getting more time in the pocket to throw, which has allowed for the playbook to be opened up and not having to worry about Brady getting the ball out quickly to avoid pressure.

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Read More: Bryan Stork, Dan Connolly, Patriots offense, Tom Brady
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