• By Quentin Congress, Contributor

New England Patriots: Stretch Run and Playoff Chances

This time of year, the New England Patriots and playoffs are always in the same sentence. It’s like music to most Patriots and NFL fans’ ears. This year isn’t any different. The Patriots are trying to repeat as Super Bowl champs. It would be the first time a team has won back-to-back Super Bowls since…the Patriots did it over ten years ago. The Pats came out the gate running to a 10-0 start, but in the last few weeks they have stumbled. The team has lost two of their last three games, and has sustained injuries to a few key players.

Star wide receiver Julian Edelman is out with a broken bone in his foot, tight end Rob Gronkowski missed time with a knee injury, and linebacker Dont’a Hightower is out with a knee injury. Running back LeGarette Blount left Sunday night’s game against the Houston Texans with a hip injury. Safety Devin McCourty (ankle), linebacker Jonathan Freeney (hand) and defensive lineman Dominique Easley (thigh) also left the game. Although the team is riddled with injuries, the Pats have the two X-Factors that can bring a team together.

Those two X-Factors are superstar quarterback Tom Brady and future Hall of Fame head coach Bill Belichick. The duo has a 117 wins altogether as head coach and quarterback in their 14 seasons together. It is the most wins by a coach and quarterback duo in NFL history. Belichick and Brady have won 4 Super Bowl Championships together. They are tied with Terry Bradshaw and the late, great Chuck Noll of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers for the most Super Bowl titles with head coach and quarterback. They have a track record of turning unknown players into superstars (Julian Edelman, Corey Dillon and Rob Gronkowski), revitalizing careers (Randy Moss and Darrelle Revis), and have even turned them into a Super Bowl MVP (Deion Branch). They might even be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton together.

Besides Belichick and Brady, the Patriots have a good underrated defense. It may not be the same smash mouth, attack, in-your-face defense that won the Pats the first three Super Bowl titles but there is some talent. Cornerback Malcolm Butler, who made the interception in last year's Super Bowl to win the title. Defensive end Chandler Jones, who leads the team with 10 sacks on the season, and safety Patrick Chung, who leads the team with 43 tackles on the season. And, cornerback Logan Ryan leads the team with 4 interceptions this season. Plus, New England is ranked in the top 10 in four defensive categories. They are 7th in total yards allowed, 7th against the pass, 10th against the run and 6th in total defense.

Brady will have his compliment of weapons once they get healthy. Julian Edelman averaged 691 yards and 7 touchdowns before his injury. Rob Gronkowski has 1,018 yards and 10 touchdowns on the year. Gronk leads the team in total yards. He also has the most touchdowns by a tight end in the NFL. Backup wide receiver Danny Amendola has been solid in Edelman's absence. He has averaged 304 yards and a touchdown in his last 4 starts. Running back LeGarrette Blount has an underrated key in the offense. Blount has 703 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns on the year.

The Patriots can easily return to the Super Bowl. There isn't a team in the AFC Playoff Picture that's a true threat standing in their way. But, there are teams in the NFC that could stand in the way of a repeat. The undefeated Carolina Panthers, the red-hot Arizona Cardinals and the Green Bay Packers with Aaron Rogers.

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