The New England Patriots aren’t favored to win the Super Bowl this year.

To those who have been watching the team, that’s probably no surprise. While the Patriots have looked impressive at times, there have been enough uncharacteristic meltdowns to give even the most fervent fans reason to temper expectations.

While the Patriots went 4-0 against playoff teams this year – beating Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Chicago – their five losses came against teams that did not make the playoffs – Jacksonville, Detroit, Tennessee, Miami and Pittsburgh.

Still, it would be a mistake to sleep on the Patriots. With their playoff experience and the leadership of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, this is still a very dangerous team. They won at least 11 games for an NFL-record ninth consecutive season. They scored over 400 points for the 12th consecutive season, another NFL record. And the defense, ranked 21st in the league, is better than it appears, ranking seventh among the NFL’s 32 teams in points allowed per game (20.3).

But for the Patriots to reach the Super Bowl for a third consecutive year, they’re going to have to be at their best.

Here are five players who will be huge factors as New England attempts to win a sixth Super Bowl in the Belichick-Brady era.

JAMES WHITE & SONY MICHEL

On a team with Brady throwing to Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman (among others), it’s easy to overlook the running backs. But White and the rookie Michel provide a 1-2 punch that is difficult to defend.

With his 87 catches this year, White became the first running back to lead the Patriots in receptions since 1988, when Reggie Dupard caught 34 (from the likes of Doug Flutie, Steve Grogan, Tony Eason and Tom Ramsey). He set career highs in catches, receiving yards (751), receiving touchdowns (seven), rushing yards (425), rushing touchdowns (five) and total TDs (12).

When he gets his hands on the ball, only good things happen. Or did you forget Super Bowl LI, when he scored three touchdowns to spark the improbable 34-28 overtime win over Atlanta?

Then there’s Michel, the rookie from Georgia. With 931 yards (in only 13 games), he became the first rookie to lead the Patriots in rushing since 1998, when Robert Edwards gained 1,115 yards. (Edwards then would ruin his knee in a flag football game at the Pro Bowl and never carry the ball for New England again.)

Michel’s ability to burst through the hole and bounce off tacklers can keep drives going, something that is going to be needed this time of year, when weather can be foul. He has become an invaluable piece of this offense.

J.C. JACKSON

An undrafted rookie cornerback from Maryland, Jackson has become quite the find for New England.

He has started the last five games of the season as either the nickel cornerback or the left cornerback and has allowed only 13 catches on 29 passes his way. Against Pittsburgh, when he covered the talented JuJu Smith-Schuster, Jackson held him to four catches on 10 targets for 40 yards.

He’s been so good that Pro Football Focus, a stats-based web site that evaluates players and units at every position, ranked him third among rookie cornerbacks with a 73.7 rating. What’s most impressive, according to PFF, is that Jackson has allowed a passer rating of just 42.0 when targeted and has not given up a touchdown while intercepting three passes.

Playing alongside Stephon Gilmore – PFF’s highest-rated cornerback at 90.7 – and Jason McCourty – ranked sixth by PFF at 83.1 – Jackson gives the Patriots a strong defense against the pass.

He finished with 24 tackles and, according to PFF, did not miss one during the regular season.

DONT’A HIGHTOWER

Yes, Hightower is not the linebacker he was when the Patriots drafted him out of Alabama in 2012. Injuries have a way of slowing players down.

But he played in 15 games this year, the most since 2013. Yeah, he only had 50 tackles, the lowest total of his career (other than 2017, when he played in only five games).

But he is a player who makes big plays. Especially in the playoffs.

The Patriots don’t win Super Bowl XLIX against Seattle unless he tackles Marshawn Lynch at the 1 in the final minute, setting up Malcolm Butler’s immortalized interception on the next play.

The Patriots don’t win Super Bowl LI against Atlanta unless he strip-sacks Matt Ryan early in the fourth quarter, leading to a touchdown that cut the deficit to 28-20.

Now 28 years old, Hightower commands great respect in the Patriots locker room and the defensive players follow his lead. He can still rush the passer and he still fill a hole to stuff the run. The Patriots need him to play big again.

TOM BRADY

What’s this? Why is Brady listed here?

Well, because everything about the Patriots starts with him. If he’s on his game, the offense purrs and the defense plays with confidence.

His critics have said continually this year that age has finally caught up with the 41-year-old quarterback, that his arm isn’t as strong as it once was, that he’s been just off a lot of the time. Sure, he’s looked bad at times – his 48.3 passer rating against Buffalo on Dec. 23 was his worst since 2006 (34.0 against Indianapolis) – but he threw for over 4,000 yards for the sixth time in the last seven years.

His quarterback rating (97.7) was his lowest since 2014 (97.4) but in line with his career rating (97.6).

He picked apart Houston, Kansas City, Indianapolis and Chicago this season. He was pretty darn good in the finale against the Jets, with four touchdown passes and a season-high 133.8 rating.

When Brady is at his best, he’s still the quarterback you want to lead a game-winning drive in the final minutes. Think he has a couple more rallies in him?

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

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