The New England Patriots play the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium Saturday night, thanks to the Colts’ dramatic come-from-behind victory over the Kansas City Chiefs last week. Indianapolis came storming back from a 28 point deficit behind the clutch play of outside linebacker Robert Mathis, quarterback Andrew Luck, and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. These three players have received plenty of attention from the media and likely are the focal point of the Patriots coaching staff.
Those three stars are likely to be the focus of the Patriots’ game planning, but the Colts are likely keying on Patriots’ key players as well. Quarterback Tom Brady, wide receiver Julian Edelman, and defensive end Chandler Jones are likely receiving extra attention in the film room from Colts coaches and players. But beyond these stars for each team are forty two other active players on each squad who will be fighting to give their team a chance to win and go to the AFC Championship Game.
Rather than focusing on the star players for Indianapolis and New England who have been covered ad nauseum, here are a four under-the-radar players (two from each team) who could have a huge impact on their team’s chances for victory on Saturday night.
New England defensive tackle Chris Jones
The surprise star of the Week 17 victory over Buffalo was defensive tackle Sealver Siliga, for which he received the cover32 Week 17 Game Ball. However, the other C. Jones on the defensive line, Chris Jones, has leapt from bouncing around on practice squads to starting and contributing on the defensive line. Jones has struggled in stopping the running game, but he has contributed with interior pass rush and seven sacks to go along with a batted pass and 13 quarterback hurries. Chris Jones may not get the attention of pass rushing defensive end Chandler Jones, but he could be a Patriot making a key sack to help stall an important Colts drive.
Indianapolis wide receiver Griff Whalen
With all the attention this week on wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and newly signed former Patriot wide receiver Deion Branch, an overlooked contributor down the stretch has been undrafted free agent receiver Griff Whalen. Whalen did not crack the lineup until the last quarter of the season. Whalen contributed with 15 receptions on 20 targets for 157 yards and two touchdowns combined against Houston, Kansas City, and Jacksonville in Weeks 15-17. Although he only had two receptions for 26 yards last week, Whalen should receive regular playing time and will be in position to make a few big receptions for the Colts.
New England linebacker Dane Fletcher
The Patriots placed starting linebacker Brandon Spikes on injured reserve this week, leaving a thin linebacking group even thinner. With Dont’a Hightower expected to get a majority of snaps at linebacker, Fletcher (along with rookie Jamie Collins) should see more playing time against the Colts. While Fletcher does not have the size or thump that Spikes brought to the lineup, he is mobile and uses his speed to make plays. Fletcher got his most playing time against Denver in week twelve. With a forced fumble, a quarterback hurry, eight tackles, and a strong performance in pass coverage, Fletcher was one of the defensive stars of the game. With an expectation of increased playing time, Fletcher could be in position to make a key play on defense.
Indianapolis inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman
Freeman, AFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 16 against Kansas City, has been racking up tackles for the Colts all season long. A former Canadian Football League star, Freeman has made plays for the unheralded Colts defense all season long. He came on strong down the stretch, not just making tackles in the running game, but adding four forced fumbles, a recovery, an interception, and couple of sacks. WIth six forced fumbles on the season, Freeman must be accounted for by the Patriots’ offensive line. Preventing turnovers is what makes the Patriots successful in the postseason, but Freeman could be a player who makes a big play for Indianapolis.
Although the playoffs are when stars shine, unheralded players often step up to play a big role. With defensive tackle Chris Jones and linebacker Dane Fletcher of the Patriots and wide receiver Griff Whalen and inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman of the Colts each in position to make a big, game-changing play, these under-the-radar players could have a huge impact on their respective team’s chances for a trip to the AFC Championship game.
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