For all of the injuries they’ve endured this season, the Patriots still have plenty of star power. It starts with Tom Brady, of course. But the franchise’s three other Pro Bowl selections — guard Logan Mankins, cornerback Aqib Talib, and special-teams ace Matthew Slater — are all established as among the best at their respective positions.
And then there’s another group of players — tackle Nate Solder, safety Devin McCourty, ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones — who are also top-level players even if the accolades don’t always come their way.
Oh, right: And LeGarrette Blount has apparently turned into Jim Brown.
But as is usually the case with a Patriots team, a fair number of big plays have come from players who aren’t the biggest names. The attrition has revealed remarkable (and well-coached) depth on this Patriots roster.
While we wonder who may rise to the occasion against the Broncos Sunday, let’s flash back to a few memorable plays from unsung players along the way.
Pedigree doesn’t much matter to Bill Belichick — he’d take a player from Pluto if he could help his football team.
The far, far away former planet is just about the only place James Develin — a former Brown defensive end who apprenticed with the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz of the Arena League and the Florida Tuskers of the UFL — hasn’t played.
Develin has grown into an increasingly important role as a fullback/blocking machine this season, but his most memorable play came on one of the four occasions in which he got to carry the ball.
With the Patriots trailing the Texans, 17-7 in Week 13, Develin took a handoff from Brady at the Texans 1, blasted into the middle of the line, and refused to be denied, a crucial play in an eventual 34-31 win.
Here’s how Greg Gumbel described it: “Straight ahead, Develin. Second effort! Third effort! Touchdown. [Pause.] That’s pretty awesome.” Sure was.
A week after losing All-Everything tight end Rob Gronkowski to a devastating knee injury against the Browns, Hoomanawanui, one of the players charged with the virtually impossible task of replacing him, made a catch straight out of a Gronk highlight reel.
With the Patriots facing a third and 8 from the Dolphins 13 in the first quarter, Tom Brady fired a pass to the left corner of the end zone toward Hoomanawanui. With a Dolphins linebacker draped all over him, Hoomanawanui reached up and caught the ball with his right hand, a spectacular one-handed grab.
It was his only catch of the day during a Week 15 loss to the Dolphins, but even in defeat it was a reception worth remembering.
3. Kenbrell Thompkins‘s winning TD reception on the final play against the Saints:
If you’re a Patriots fan and you don’t get chills watching this clip, which is shot from the seats behind the end zone, I don’t know what to tell you.
Given the circumstances — the Patriots had the ball with 1:13 left at their own 30, trailing 24-23 and with no timeouts remaining against the unbeaten Saints — it has to go down as one of the most impressive regular-season drives of Tom Brady’s career.
And that catch by Thompkins, a 17-yard score with 5 seconds remaining, had a fairly high degree of difficulty. Just a beautiful play all around in a moment when the Patriots desperately needed one.
It’s no exaggeration to say that there were at least a half-dozen plays late in the Patriots’ 27-26 come-from-behind win over the Browns during Week 14 that could be considered for this spot. Heck, Shane Vereen, who had 10 receptions and stepped up after Gronkowski was injured, might have had that many himself.
But the nod for the biggest play goes to Arrington, who recovered Stephen Gostkowski‘s flawless onside kick at the Browns 40, a play sandwiched between Brady touchdown passes to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola in the game’s final 1 minute and 1 second.
Without Arrington’s recovery, the opportunity to win the game wouldn’t have materialized.
5. Stephen Gostkowski’s winning field goal in overtime against the Broncos:
OK, so he’s hardly an unknown. But he also deserves more acknowledgment than he gets.
The eighth-year kicker out of Memphis has more than lived up to the unenviable task of succeeding Adam Vinatieri, and 2013 might be his best season yet. Gostkowski set career highs in field goals (38) and points (an NFL-best 158).
He also made a career-best 92.7 percent of his field goal attempts, missing just three all season.
The biggest kick came in overtime of the Patriots’ 34-31 victory over the Broncos in Week 12. His 31-yarder with a little less than two minutes remaining in overtime delivered a victory to the Patriots.
Given the season he’s had, you wonder if that kick is foreshadowing another to come.