The Patriots are the overwhelming favorites to represent the AFC, but they still have to play the games in order to win Super Bowl LI. The offense needs to score points, the defense needs to avoid giving up points, and special teams needs to continue to win the battle of field position. The Patriots have the talent and coaching to run the AFC as long as they play their game since all their AFC postseason games will be at home. The Texans will be the first team to step into Foxboro, with the winner of the Steelers/Chiefs being the next team should the Patriots win on Saturday.
- QB Tom Brady: This is very obvious to many, as the team will need another great postseason from Brady in order to win Super Bowl LI. The good news for Brady is the only elite defense in the field was eliminated by the Packers. The Patriots will face a fairly stingy defense in the Houston Texans in the Division Round, but the other defenses have exploitable flaws. The offensive line needs to keep him upright, although the advantage at home is defenses can’t guess the snap count without risking 5 yards. If the offensive line can give him time, he will pick apart these flawed defenses.
- CB Malcolm Butler: QB play and pass defense are often the top two things necessary for a postseason run, the Patriots have been below average against the pass in terms of DVOA. However, the passing game comes down to match-ups and the ones Malcolm Butler could draw (Will Fuller, Antonio Brown, Jeremy Maclin, etc) will determine if the Patriots are advancing or not. The Patriots will give him help at times, but more often than not they will leave him on an island against the opposing team’s best receiver should he line up to his side. If Butler continues to play at a Pro Bowl/All-Pro level in the postseason, the Patriots defense should have little problems.
- DL Trey Flowers: As goes coverage, the Patriots also need to generate a pass rusher. Flowers is the Patriots best defensive lineman in generating pressure, although he is mostly an interior rusher. Flowers’ strengths are his ability to engage offensive lineman, shed their blocks, and make big stops for the defense. Flowers is still a rotational player, but since Week 10 has been more of a regular in the defense. In that time, Flowers has recorded 7 sacks and constantly pressuring QBs.
- RG Shaq Mason: The biggest thing that could give the Patriots trouble is interior pressure. Brady is adept at handling edge pressure by stepping up in the pocket, but someone needs to give him that room. Shaq Mason has come a long way in 2016 as Brady has had time to throw the ball during the Patriots 7-game winning streak. Thuney, Andrews, and Mason are going to be more important for the Patriots and Tom Brady to make a postseason run than the Patriots two tackles.
- WR Julian Edelman: Brady’s go-to-guy has to be sharp for the postseason as he might be in a situation where he needs to make a big conversion for the offense. When it matters most, Edelman has been mostly reliable in those situations. Whether it was throwing a TD pass to stun the Ravens, his 3rd and 14 conversion that kickstarted the offense in Super Bowl XLIX, or the game-winning TD of that game, Edelman has been the guy when the Patriots absolutely got to have it. Danny Amendola will be available for the postseason as well in case teams elect to double Edelman on 3rd down.
- LT Nate Solder: As I see it, Solder is playing the postseason for his next contract potentially. Solder will face Jadeveon Clowney in the Division Round, but could be facing Dee Ford or the ageless wonder James Harrison in the AFCCG. The Patriots run game does very well off-tackle with Blount on the field and the Patriots utilize more gap scheme runs when Lewis gets the ball. Solder is the Patriots best run blocker and it will be crucial for the OL to open up lanes in the running game although the toughest run defense they’ll face is the Texans on Saturday.
- LB Dont’a Hightower: Hightower is responsible for lining up the defense and needs to put them in the right position to succeed. Hightower will be primarily playing the run and middle of the field with the other LB more responsible in man coverage situations. The Patriots will need Hightower’s ability to disrupt when blitzing in order to set up his teammates to make stops or make the stop himself.
- RB James White: While LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis will primarily be running the ball in the offense, the Patriots need their top receiving back to make plays for them. White is very good at exploiting LB coverage in space and while he’s still a mediocre pass blocker, he’s capable of getting decent chunks on short passes and his ability to line up and run routes like a WR. We saw in 2014 how important a strong receiving back was to the offense and how Shane Vereen was instrumental in the Patriots drives staying on schedule in Super Bowl XLIX.
- DT Alan Branch: The Patriots best chance at getting ahead early will be their ability to handle the ground game. The Patriots have been one of the better run defenses in the NFL, ranking 4th in DVOA. That’s been a huge testament to how well Branch, Malcom Brown, and Vince Valentine have played inside. Those three will be responsible for shutting down the Texans very stoppable run game and put it in Osweiler’s hands.
- RT Marcus Cannon: Cannon has easier match-ups in the AFC playoffs unless Justin Houston plays for the Chiefs, but will face a tougher group of edge rushers should the Patriots make the Super Bowl. Whether it’s Clay Matthews, 2016 sack champion Vic Beasley, or another match-up against Cliff Avril, Cannon would have his work cut out for him in Super Bowl LI. Cannon has been excellent against some of the leagues best pass rushers, shutting out Cameron Wake, Jerry Hughes, Cliff Avril, and Von Miller this year. The Patriots will need Cannon to continue to play at a high level for the next month in order to win Super Bowl LI.
Obviously some big names like S Devin McCourty were left off and the total ignorance of Special Teamers like Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, and Jonathan Jones on the list wasn’t my intention. The Patriots will need all 46 active players to Do Their Job and execute their assignments at a high level. The list is more of a Top 10 Patriots on the roster list and not everyone has the same opinion, which is fine.