Sunday's game between the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos marked just the fifth time that wide receiver Danny Amendola didn't suit up. He was signed to ultimately replace Wes Welker, but a groin injury in the opening game of 2013 opened the door for Julian Edelman to steal the spotlight and the starting role.
Amendola remained a key target in the anemic 2013 offense that lacked Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and heavily featured rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. Once the unit gained its health in 2014, Amendola disappeared.
Between week 2 and week 15 of the 2014 season, Amendola never saw more than three targets in any game. Over that time frame, Edelman saw 7 or more targets in all but one game, and that was when he injured his hip against the Bears and only played 60% of the snaps.
In between the week 15 game against the Dolphins and the week 16 match-up against the Jets, Edelman suffered a concussion and the Patriots sat their star receiver out for the rest of the regular season. Edelman returned for the playoffs, but those two weeks off were key for the Patriots offense because Amendola was thrust back into the starting line-up.
And Amendola became a star.
Nearly two full seasons after losing the starting job to Edelman, Amendola was given the opportunity to redevelop a rapport with Tom Brady and it worked. Amendola averaged nearly 7 targets and 67 yards per game over the final two weeks of the season and the Patriots Super Bowl run.
One year after collecting just 200 yards in the 2014 regular season, Amendola exceeded that amount by week 5 in 2015.
Without those final two weeks of the regular season, it's possible that Amendola could have been released prior to the 2015 season. Now everyone can't wait for his return.
Tight end Scott Chandler has been presented with a similar opportunity, thanks to a minor Rob Gronkowski injury. Gronkowski isn't expected to play against the Eagles and it's possible the Patriots will give him some extra time to heal to avoid sending him down to the notoriously questionable Texans field (yes, Houston replaced their patchwork field back in September. I could still see the team holding back).
Chandler doesn't have to put up Rob Gronkowski numbers to have his time in the starting line-up be considered a success. But prior to the game against the Broncos, Chandler had averaged 2.3 targets and 14 yards per game. Those numbers will greatly increase in the coming weeks.
The 11 targets that went Chandler's way in Denver is more likely the volume the tight end will see against the Eagles. Chandler pulled down 5 receptions for 58 yards and a touchdown, with three missed deep balls down the right sideline. The comparisons between Chandler's outing and receiver Brandon LaFell's opening night with the Patriots in 2014, or his return from injury in 2015, are multiple.
The door has been opened for Chandler to become a key contributor down the final stretch and he has the full support of the team.
"We will need to rely on [Chandler] quite a bit," quarterback Tom Brady said. "He is going to be a major contributor for our team. It was good to see him do that [against the Broncos] and we will see how it will go going forward."
If Chandler can develop into a reliable option in the offense, the Patriots will be able to head into the playoffs with Gronkowski, Edelman, LaFell, Amendola, and Chandler as contributors, which should open up opportunities for the surprisingly sluggish LeGarrette Blount in the backfield.
Chandler has been thrown a big opportunity. The only question is whether he can come down with the pass.