Patriots vs. Broncos: 5 New England players to watch

Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Brady is a constant threat, but these five players are far more important on Sunday.

SB Nation 2014 NFL Playoff Coverage

Obtuse. That's the most appropriate word to define the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick, who rarely explains his team. The Patriots have undergone a variety of iterations over the last decade, but continue to thrive based on their two constants: Belichick's outstanding coaching and quarterback Tom Brady. The game on Sunday won't be defined by these consistencies, but rather a cadre of players without as much fanfare.

The 2013 Patriots are defined by their ability to run the football. Part of this is a virtue of being forced to because of an injury to Rob Gronkowski, while young receivers are slowly developing in the team's system. Keeping the offense grounded has been a key to their success in 2013, and will determine the outcome Sunday.

LeGarrette Blount

A strong north-south running back is something the Patriots have lacked since Laurence Maroney. The arrival of Blount has changed how the offense operates and diversified how New England can attack teams.

To reduce Blount to simply a north-south back is unfair, because he offers more than that. He's a back who can excel on the edge even if he doesn't normally have the instinct to hit the outside. This is where he won against the Colts in the Divisional round, peppering the defense with a series of interior runs before breaking one outside.

Blount will get more carries than he did in the last meeting, where he finished with two carries for 13 yards, but being largely untested against the Broncos will shape this game.

Chandler Jones

The Patriots use a variety of pass rushers on defense, and Jones is their finisher. He led the team with 11.5 sacks and has almost unmatched length at the position, which makes it difficult for offensive linemen to extend against him successfully.

That length plays a huge role in his ability to finish plays, where his wingspan alone can allow him to be held in a block and still reach out an arm to disrupt a pass. He will be a serious problem for tackle Chris Clark to cover, and this will determine how clean Peyton Manning's pocket is.

Julian Edelman

The 2013 season has been a definitive one in the career of Edelman. It was believed that free agent acquisition Danny Amendola would allow the Patriots to mitigate the loss of Wes Welker to free agency, but it ended up being the breakout performance of Edelman that helped turn the tide. That's bold language and it fits in this case.

A sure-handed target is something Brady needed when Gronkowski was lost for the season. Amendola was good at times, but too often, injury kept him sidelined. In 2013, Edelman dropped 13 passes, but vastly improved as the season went on to become the most reliable receiver on the team.

Against the Broncos, Edelman had one of his best games when he finished with nine receptions for 110 yards and two touchdowns. Duplicating this performance will put ample pressure on Denver to stay in a shootout.

Stevan Ridley

Recent performances by Blount have made him the focus of analysis, but Ridley's ability to be spelled is a huge factor in the Patriots' ability to win. He differs from Blount in his ability to make defenders miss, resulting in 27 missed tackles against him in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus.

It's not all roses for Ridley, however. He has a dangerous propensity to fumble in bad situations -- dropping and losing four in 2013. Consistency is something this offense craves and at times this is a problem for Ridley.

He was a non-factor against Denver in 2013, but had a huge game the previous year. Ridley finished with 151 yards and a touchdown.

Rob Ninkovich

Ninkovich is an unknown quantity for most fans outside of New England, but he's one of the best secondary pass rushers in the league. He often takes a back seat to the more renowned Jones, but outpaced the star pass rusher with 46 quarterback hurries this season.

His role on Sunday will be twofold: First, deliver as much pressure as possible, and follow that with reliable tackling on edge runs and screen passes. The Broncos use Knowshon Moreno as a receiving threat often, and keeping him in check will be key.

The last time these teams met, Ninkovich didn't have a huge impact. He finished with 13 assisted tackles and no sacks, something that will need to improve on Sunday.

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