New England’s Title Chances Might Ride on the Shoulders of These X-Factors

While the majority of the hype surrounding big games or big series go to the stars, more often than not, it is the supporting cast that has the final say on who takes home the hardware. Look at the past three major sport title winners and it rings true. Albert Pujols was great for the Cardinals, but David Freese proved to be the difference maker. For as good as Tim Thomas was for the Bruins, Brad Marchand’s five goals led all scorers, including two in Game Seven. Dirk Nowitzki finally brought a title to Dallas, but J.J. Barea’s insertion into the starting line-up and subsequent outstanding play had a huge effect on the outcome.

We watch games to see the best of the best play their game. But for every Tom Brady, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski there is a lesser known player who could have just as big of a hand in the outcome this Sunday. Let’s take a look at a list of three players from New England who could be the X-Factor in Super Bowl XLVI:

1. Julian Edelman – Truth be told, we could list the enter New England secondary here, but Edelman is the most intriguing of all of their defensive backs who will see action on Sunday. While the days of two-way players have all but died, Edelman has been a factor on offense, defense and special teams for the Patriots. In the AFC championship, Edelman saw 27 of the 73 snaps on defense while also registering 27 of the 63 snaps on offense.

How Edelman gets used on Sunday might come down to the health of Gronkowski’s ankle. If Gronkowski can play a full game, Edelman will most likely see the majority of his snaps on the defensive side of the ball as the nickel back. Edelman played 37 percent of the defensive plays against the Ravens, a team that had a pass:run ratio of 54:46. The Giants meanwhile had a pass:run ratio of 69:31 in their championship game. If that holds true on Sunday, it is conceivable that Edelman would play more than half of the Patriots defensive snaps and could find himself in the middle of a lot of plays. Expect New York to find Edelman and try to attack him throughout the game and how the third year former quarterback from Kent State holds up against the NFL’s 5th best passing attack could decide the outcome.

2. Deion Branch – To the untrained eye it might have seemed as if Branch didn’t do much last Sunday against the Ravens. While his statistics weren’t overpowering by any means (two receptions for 18 yards, Branch did log the third most plays of any non-quarterback or lineman for the Patriots, playing 61 of the 67 offensive snaps. Branch did put up solid numbers against the Broncos (three catches for 85 yards and a score did finish the season fourth on New England in receptions with 51.

The Giants main focus will be on taking Welker, Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez away from Tom Brady. That leaves the usually dependable Branch. Throughout his play-off history, Branch has come up big on the biggest stage as evidence by his 21 receptions for 276 yards and a TD in two Super Bowl appearances, including an MVP against Carolina. Can the 32-year-old branch find magic again? It may be the difference between pickiung up his third ring or a long off-season.

3. Stephen Gostkowski – The last four Super Bowls the Patriots have played in have all been decided by three points and this one could come down to Gostkowski’s foot. The question is, does Bill Belichick trust him. While the memorable moments from Super Bowl XLII include Asante Samuel’s near interception, Eli Manning’s Houdini-like escape from the grasp of a sack and David Tyree’s helmet catch, there is a lost moment that could have proved just as big.

Facing a fourth-and-13 from the New York 31 in the third quarter with a 7-3 lead, Belichick chose to forgo a 48-yard field goal attempt and turned it over on downs. In 2007, Gostkowski was 21 of 24 on field goals, including 3 of 5 from 40-49 yards. The game in 2007 was played in a dome in Arizona, so kicking conditions were as good as they could be, but Belichick believed more that his offense could pick up 13 yards than Gostkowski could put points up from 48 yards. Odds are, if Adam Vinateri was there, the field goal unit would have seen the field. This year, Gostkowski is 28 of 33, including 9 of 11 on kicks from 40-49 yards, but the question remains, if the same situation comes up on Sunday, does Belichick have faith that his kicker can come through?

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