FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots haven’t won eight consecutive AFC East titles by accident.

They have been the AFC’s No. 1 seed six times in the last 14 years, and have won at least 14 games – as they did this season – an NFL-record five times.

None of this is by coincidence.

The franchise’s long-term success is the result of many factors, among them talent in both the coaching and playing ranks.

This year’s roster is dotted with stars such as Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, LeGarrette Blount, Dont’a Hightower, Malcolm Butler and Devin McCourty.

It’s a team coached by one of the NFL’s all-time greats in Bill Belichick.

But there are other reasons for New England’s success – and one of them is finding the right players for their system. It’s been said that the Patriots run complicated offenses and defenses, and over the years we’ve seen rookies and star players from other teams struggle to fit in with New England.

We’ve seen others, such as Mike Vrabel or Wes Welker or Rob Ninkovich thrive in this environment to become integral parts of the team success.

This year is no different. Here’s a look at some of the unsung players who have made mighty contributions to the Super Bowl favorites.

Chris Hogan

Wide Receiver

The Patriots knew a little about the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Hogan because he played for the Buffalo Bills the last three years. They saw him mostly on special teams, though Hogan flashed his talent when given the chance at wide receiver – including a game against New England last year when he caught six passes for 95 yards. The Patriots’ hierarchy – Belichick, director of player personnel Nick Caserio and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels – saw his speed and ability to stretch the field, something desperately needed to make Brady’s quick passes more effective.

So they signed Hogan as a free agent. Hogan averaged an NFL-high 17.9 yards per catch this year, grabbing 38 passes and scoring four touchdowns.

You have to go back to 2004 to find a Patriots wide receiver with a higher average on at least 25 catches. That was David Patten, who averaged 18.2 yards per catch on 44 receptions.

Hogan has had five of the Patriots’ 10 longest plays this year: a 79-yard touchdown pass against Baltimore, 63-yard catch against Cleveland, 53-yard touchdown against the Bills, 43-yard catch against Cleveland and a 39-yard pass against Cincinnati.

“It’s definitely a skill,” McDaniels said of Hogan’s ability to go deep. “It’s not something that’s simple. There’s a lot going on. You’re running at a high rate of speed, you’ve got a defender that’s easily in contact with you, or close contact with you. There’s wind, there’s rain, there’s sun, there’s the flight of the ball, there’s the arc and pace that the ball is coming down with. There are a lot of things going on.”

Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Shaq Mason

Offensive linemen

It’s remarkable that these three not only made up the middle of the Patriots’ offensive line, but thrived. Their ability to provide an inside running game and effective pass blocking up the middle for Brady was a key part of New England’s success.

And they were out there all the time.

Thuney, a rookie third-round draft pick out of North Carolina State, and Andrews, a second-year player out of Georgia who was signed as an undrafted free agent, missed only four of the Patriots’ 1,118 offensive plays all season. Think about that. Four plays.

Mason, a second-year fourth-round draft pick out of Georgia Tech, was right there too, missing only three plays (in the season finale against Miami) over the season’s last 14 games.

Asked if it’s rare for a rookie to step in like that, Belichick said it’s hard for anyone to do what Thuney did this year.

“Look, for any player to play a lot of snaps at any position, rookie or anything else, there’s something to be said for that,” Belichick said. “Just durability and being able to stay out there day after day and week after week is tough in this league. Joe’s done a good job of that, though. He’s shown up every day, not just in the regular season but in training camp and all spring. He’s been really durable.”

Thuney is a big guy at 6-5, 305 pounds, while Andrews plays at 6-3, 295. Mason, one of the NFL’s most athletic young offensive linemen, is 6-1, 310.

Alan Branch and Trey Flowers

Defensive linemen

The 6-6, 350-pound Branch is a 10-year veteran who was signed as a free agent midway through the 2014 season; the 6-2, 265-pound Flowers is a second-year player, a fourth-round pick out of Arkansas who ended his rookie season on injured reserve. The two have been monumental in New England’s defensive front.

Branch set a career high with 48 tackles this year, including 25 unassisted. He was the rock in the middle, often pushing through to break up a run or put pressure on the quarterback. He had 1.5 sacks and actually had three pass break-ups. He also blocked a field-goal attempt.

While he rotates at the position with two younger tackles, Belichick said, “Branch has been by far our most consistent defensive tackle.”

Flowers was right behind Branch with 46 tackles and had a strong second half to finish with a team-high seven sacks – all since Week 8, when his playing time started to increase. He had a team-high 12 quarterback hits and recovered two fumbles. He has shown the ability to rush from the edge or play inside where he uses his quickness and strength to disrupt run plays.

“He’s extremely long,” said defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. “He’s got great leverage. He does a good job with his hands, and he’s just, I think he’s a guy that really tries to improve himself.”

Eric Rowe

Cornerback

Originally a second-round draft pick by the Eagles, Rowe was acquired in a trade with Philadelphia on Sept. 6, five days before the season opener. This is another example of the Patriots looking to fill a need.

While it took Rowe some time to adjust to the Patriots’ defensive system, he is now settled in as the third cornerback, a vital position in any secondary. Rowe actually started three games, and combines with Logan Ryan and Butler to provide strong coverage.

In just nine games he finished with 26 tackles, one interception and seven pass break-ups, third on the team behind Butler (17) and Ryan (11). Look for his role to expand in the playoffs.

Nate Ebner

Special teams

Matthew Slater gets most of the attention when it comes to special teams and rightfully so. He’s a six-time Pro Bowl selection. But it was Ebner who really stepped up this year.

Although missing most of training camp while a member of the U.S. Olympic rugby team that participated in the Rio Olympics, Ebner finished tied for the NFL lead with 19 special team tackles.

Belichick has said “there are a lot of things that he does that other people wouldn’t notice.” And he added that Ebner does them well, like blocking on returns, or tackling. He’s the personal protector on punts, meaning he sets up the blocking against the rush.

Ebner is another example of the Patriots thinking outside the box. He was a U.S. national team rugby player who walked on to play football at Ohio State, earning a scholarship as a special teams player. The Patriots drafted him in the sixth round in 2012 and he’s now one of their indispensable special teams players.

 


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