The Patriots will only need to win two games in order to make the Super Bowl. However, it won't be easy and the team has a number of key players who must step up to give the best chance to reach the final game of the season.
Finishing the regular season with a 12-4 record despite injuries to numerous key players such as defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, tight end Rob Gronkowski and linebacker Jerod Mayo, other players stepped up in their stead, permitting the team's success.
The playoffs raise the degree of difficulty for the rest of the way significantly but the following players could help spark a Super Bowl run:
Quarterback Tom Brady: This is obviously a no-brainer. As goes Brady, so go the Patriots.
The 2013 season has been a testament to the importance and mastery of Brady. He didn't have one of his best statistical years, throwing for 4,343 yards with 25 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. But he did have one of his best in terms of perseverance and guiding the team's offense. Playing all but seven games without Gronkowski, and with a remade receiving corps highlighted by three rookies, he still managed to keep the team on track and successful.
Brady started the season having a difficult time dealing with the growing pains of his new targets but has since done a wonderful job bringing them along.
Having proven time and time again that he can win no matter who he is throwing the ball to, he must make one more monumental push this postseason to see if he can reach his sixth Super Bowl and earn his fourth title.
Cornerback Aqib Talib: Other than a bit of a meltdown against Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith, Talib has been an unrelenting machine on defense this year. Appearing in 13 games, he racked up 41 tackles, four interceptions and a Pro Bowl nod.
Talib has shown shutdown ability on multiple occasions this year, helping hold down such receivers as Vincent Jackson (three catches for 34 yards in Week 3), A.J. Green (five catches for 61 yards in Week 5) and Jimmy Graham (no catches in Week 6).
According to NESN.com's Doug Kyed, opposing quarterbacks completed less than half of their pass attempts throwing against Talib this season for just 471 total yards and only two scores.
His ability to blow up a passing game could put New England in the playoff driver's seat if he gets on a hot streak.
Wide Receiver Danny Amendola: Signed in the offseason to a five-year, $31 million free-agent contract to replace the departed Wes Welker and head the revamped Patriots receiver corps, Amendola has had his ups and downs.
After missing 22 games in the first four years of his professional career with the St. Louis Rams, he has sat out four full games and parts of others with various injuries this season.
Although he accumulated 54 catches for 633 yards and a couple of scores, he has primarily operated as a second or third option when healthy.
Amendola has a unique ability to work equally well in the slot or on the outside. When he and Brady are on the same page, they can wreak havoc together, as evidenced by the three 100-yard receiving games the receiver has had this season.
With Gronkowski out for the remainder of the year with a leg injury, the playoffs would be a great time for Amendola to emerge as a top option.
Linebacker Jamie Collins: During head coach Bill Belichick's tenure with the team, it seems there has typically been a player or two on defense who is an athletic jack of all trades capable of making big plays. This year's version could very well be the rookie linebacker.
A second-round pick out of Southern Miss, Collins has come along slowly but gained momentum towards the end of the season. Injuries on defense have sped up his development and he has responded by making 43 tackles and showing a growing ability in pass coverage.
His importance in the playoffs will be magnified even more with the recent news that linebacker Brandon Spikes is done for the season with a knee injury.
Nothing would announce Collins' arrival as an impact player more than making some key plays in the postseason to help spark his team.
Cornerback Logan Ryan: The Patriots already have two excellent corners in Talib and Alfonzo Dennard but Ryan has come on strong this season.
The rookie was a third-round pick out of Rutgers. After playing intermittently in the early going, he has become a key contributor, showing a nose for the ball. All told, he chipped in 50 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 10 passes defended and five interceptions.
With the starters likely blanketing the Colts' top receiving options, Ryan will get plenty of opportunities to make big plays by helping out and also covering receivers further down the depth chart.
Nicknamed "Instant Offense" because of his ball-hawking style, he is the kind of weapon that can change the direction of any game in a flash. Like Collins, taking his game up another notch in the playoffs could help him set the tone of his career in addition to helping the team.
In addition to the Yahoo Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written extensively for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports (particularly the Boston Red Sox and the New England Patriots). He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
You can also follow Andrew on Twitter: @HistorianAndrew.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- New England Patriots
- Tom Brady
- Rob Gronkowski
- Aqib Talib
- Danny Amendola
- Super Bowl
- Indianapolis Colts