No player is bigger than the team.
Does any franchise live by that motto more than the Patriots?
Even with a subpar performance by Tom Brady, the Patriots scratched and clawed their way to an AFC Championship victory over the Ravens (props to Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff).
For a 2011 team that saw Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth don Patriots uniforms, these offseason acquisitions turned out to be total busts.
However, there were three under-the-radar free agent signings that paid big dividends to this Super Bowl run. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the 10 most important players that got us to the big dance.
1. Tom Brady: Any list of MVPs begins and ends with Tom Brady. With no deep threat, a below average running game and an even worse defense, the three-time Super Bowl winner put the team on his back. Brady finished second in yards to Drew Brees and had an incredible 19:2 touchdown to interception ratio during the second half of the regular season. Oh, the Pats went 8-0 during that stretch.
2. Rob Gronkowski: Supremely talented, but sometimes immature, the hulking superhuman of a tight end put together a historic season. “Gronk” dominated in every facet of the game, including a signature spike after every one of his 17 touchdowns, a new single-season record for a tight end. The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder finished with 1,327 yards and destroyed the Broncos in the first playoff game. If you think a sprained ankle will slow down this All-Pro, think again.
3. Vince Wilfork: If Vince Wilfork really weighs 325 pounds, then Tom Brady runs a 4.5 forty. Whatever his real weight is, and I’m guessing it’s somewhere north of 350, Wilfork sure knows how to use it. Up to this point, he mostly served as a 3-4 nose tackle, eating up blocks by the forkful, but with a switch to a 4-3, he got a chance to be more disruptive. Sunday’s performance against the Ravens proved why he’s more than just a space-eater. He single-handedly dominated the line of scrimmage and accounted for six tackles, a sack and three tackles for loss.
4. Wes Welker: What Vince Wilfork has in size, Wes Welker has in heart. The man stands 5-foot-9, 185 pounds sopping wet, yet he had his best season of his career despite being the only true threat at the receiver position. The revolutionary slot receiver found a knack for big plays this season, averaging 12.9 yards per catch, his best mark since he joined the Pats in ’07. He finished the year with 122 catches for 1,569 yards and nine TDs. Guess size doesn’t matter.
5. Brian Waters: How do the Chiefs cut a five-time Pro Bowler? Well, the Patriots capitalized on that head-scratcher, and Waters managed to make his sixth Pro Bowl after a stellar season at right guard. The longtime veteran brought a great work ethic and leadership to a line that featured some new blood in rookies Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon. Waters actually outplayed Logan Mankins and solidified the right side that featured backup center Dan Connolly and a rotating lineup at right tackle.
6. Aaron Hernandez: The other half of the Boston TE Party should have made the Pro Bowl after posting a terrific line of 79/910/7. While Gronkowski received more national attention for his earth-shattering spikes, I’d argue that Hernandez was actually the single-most difficult Patriot to defend. His versatility and athletic ability caused headaches for defenses and his alignment often determined what coverage the defense would play. Once pegged as a first-round pick, the Patriots got a steal by getting the former Gator in the fourth round.
7. Andre Carter: Like Waters, Carter is a hard-working veteran who found himself without a job this offseason. With the new defensive system, Belichick signed the former first-round pick from ’01 with the hopes that he could bring some pass rush. And boy did he bring it. Revitalized after returning to his normal 4-3 end spot, Carter dominated through the first 13 games before going down with a season-ending quad injury against the Broncos in week 15. The 2011 Pro Bowler recorded 10 sacks and played stout against the run during a tough transition period for the rest of the defense.
8. Rob Ninkovich: It’s so easy to compare this guy to Mike Vrabel, and it goes beyond just his appearance and jersey number. On a defense featuring a ton of undrafted, unknown commodities, Ninkovich has ascended as one of the better linebackers in the league. His versatility enables him to play both 4-3 end, 4-3 outside linebacker and 3-4 outside linebacker. His combination of smarts, toughness and effort enabled him to have his best season as a pro, finishing with 74 tackles, 6.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions. The sixth-year jack-of-all-trades put on a show against the Broncos and was instrumental in proving Tim Tebow isn’t guaranteed a starting job next year.
9. Kyle Love: We dreamt that pairing Albert Haynesworth with Big Vince would lead to nightmares for quarterbacks and opposing offensive lines. That dream went out the window in about two days. Haynesworth rarely practiced due to a back injury (maybe he should of tried getting in shape) and was cut after several underwhelming performances. In stepped Kyle Love, a former undrafted free agent out of Mississippi State who was ranked the 93rd best defensive tackle by NFLDraftScout.com for the 2010 draft. All he did was grasp the starting spot and record 33 tackles and three sacks while doing his best to appear like a Wilfork clone.
10. Mark Anderson: Chicago Bears fans can reminisce about 2006. The team went to the Super Bowl and Mark Anderson was nearly the Defensive Rookie of the Year. The former Alabama standout never replicated his rookie year success when he posted 12 sacks…until he came to New England. Playing as strictly a pass rusher, Anderson notched 10 sacks, more than he had the last three years combined. When Carter went down, his playing time increased and he’s become a more complete player. If the Pats plan on getting their fourth ring, Anderson will need to get pressure on Eli.
Honorable Mention- Nate Solder: Fans groaned when the Pats selected an offensive lineman with the 17th overall pick. I’ll admit I wasn’t a big fan of Solder. He didn’t have a ton of experience, he needed to get stronger and he was a project. Not a good combo for a team with its star quarterback’s window of opportunity dwindling. But with Sebastian Vollmer hobbled by injuries, Solder was forced into the starting lineup sooner than expected. The mammoth rookie from Colorado did an admirable job considering the lockout prevented him from a full offseason. While he still has work to do in pass protection, he didn’t get Brady killed and has actually been a solid run blocker. The upside is there, and he needs to have his best game against the best defensive line in football.