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New England Patriots: Three Players Who Must Step Up to Help Ailing Team Make Playoffs

Despite Sweeping Injuries, Pats Still Have Talent to Make a Postseason Run

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | The New England Patriots are reeling this week as they continue to deal with significant injury issues with many of their key players.

Having started the season with a 5-1 record, they are in good shape for a run at a playoff spot. However, in order for that to happen, they must have players step up their game to help the ailing team.

The Patriots have already lost defensive stalwarts defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (Achilles) and linebacker Jerod Mayo (torn pectoral muscle) for the remainder of the season.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski has yet to play because of a lengthy recovery from offseason surgeries.

Additionally, guard Dan Connolly (concussion), wide receiver Danny Amendola (concussion) and cornerback Aqib Talib (hip flexor) recently suffered injuries, and it has yet to be determined how that will impact their play or how much time they might miss.

Here are the three players who must elevate their play for the Patriots in order for the team to continue being a serious playoff contender:

Linebacker Dont'a Hightower: Mayo, who was leading the team with 55 tackles at the time of his injury in the Week 6 victory against the New Orleans Saints, is especially hard to replace. He was the team's vocal leader on defense, including making the unit's calls.'s Nick Underhill reported that prior to Mayo leaving with his injury, he had been on the field for 97.8 percent of the team's defensive snaps this season-missing just eight plays all year.

Second-year man Dont'a Hightower will now be asked to play a much more significant role. He has played in 69.4 percent of the 2013 defensive snaps, but will now see that number go up. He will also be assuming the play-calling duties; something which he told Underhill he is prepared for. "I'm not nervous about it," he said. "It's something I've done before, maybe not in the NFL, but I've done it before."

The 23-year-old Hightower has 26 tackles so far this season. A first-round draft pick last year, he already had expectations of becoming an impact player. The loss of Mayo will just speed up the necessity of him completing his development.

Wide Receiver Aaron Dobson: Since he is a rookie with just five NFL games to his credit, expecting the 22-year-old to elevate his game may be a little unfair. However, being a second-round pick implies advanced skill level, and the Patriots could certainly use that over the course of the remainder of the season.

Averaging just under 21 points per game as a team, the Patriots are on pace for their lowest-scoring season since 2000. The offense has particularly struggled at times in the passing game, where Dobson is one of three rookie receivers. Quarterback Tom Brady has not consistently been on the same page as the unit, having thrown just eight touchdowns thus far.

Dobson has frustrated Brady with his tentativeness and mistakes on running routes. He has had 37 balls thrown his way but has responded with just 19 receptions for 230 yards and a score. Bad throws can be blamed for some of the missed connections, but he has also had drops and not always been in the right position to make the catch.

A positive sign was his last game against the Saints, which was perhaps the best of his young career. He hauled in six passes for 63 yards, and generally looked to be in much better synch with Brady.

Dobson has great talent. Like most young players, he just needs to refine his game to the rigors of the NFL. His recent progress is an encouraging sign, but if the Patriots are going to make any noise in the playoffs he needs to become a more consistent weapon.

Safety Devin McCourty: Since a flashy rookie season that saw him post 82 tackles and seven interceptions while playing cornerback, the team's 2010 first-round pick has not shown the same dynamic ability.

A position change turned him into a productive safety, but so far he is having a quiet 2013 season, having made 31 tackles and forced two fumbles with no interceptions.

A return to the form that saw him total 251 tackles and 14 interceptions in his the previous three seasons would be quite a boost for the Patriots defense.

McCourty was a team captain in 2011 and 2012, but was stripped of the title at the start of this season. However, the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe is reporting the defensive back has regained the honor in light of the loss of Mayo and Wilfork.

New England wouldn't have bestowed the captaincy back upon McCourty if they didn't feel he was up to the task. He now needs to play like he has shown he is capable of in the past, and lead the defense by example.

Conclusion: The Patriots may have taken some major injury hits but still have a lot of remaining talent to make this a successful season. They just need players to step up and replace the leadership and production of their fallen and ailing teammates.

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 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.

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