FOXBORO, Mass. — The biggest difference between this year’s New England Patriots team and last year? The 2016 edition isn’t limping into the playoffs with more than a dozen players relegated to injured reserve.
In fact, the current Patriots squad is one of the healthiest of head coach Bill Belichick’s tenure with the team.
Entering Saturday night’s divisional-round game against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium, New England has just four players on IR (linebacker Jonathan Freeny and tight ends Rob Gronkowski, Michael Williams and Greg Scruggs), plus two more who never made it off the physically unable to perform list in guard Tre’ Jackson and tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
For comparison’s sake, the 2015 Patriots had 15 players on IR when they began their ill-fated playoff run.
And while Freeny, Jackson and Vollmer likely would have played somewhat prominent roles this season, Gronkowski is the only major loss on that list.
Here’s a look at the Patriots’ current injury situation, position by position:
This actually could have proved disastrous early in the season, as both of Tom Brady’s backups suffered injuries during the quarterback’s four-game Deflategate suspension. Third-string rookie Jacoby Brissett, however, was able to tough out his busted thumb until Brady returned. Brady has started every game since, though he’s sat out several practices since taking a hard hit to the thigh/knee in Week 10.
LeGarrette Blount has been the picture of reliability this season, playing in all 16 games for just the second time in his career and setting career highs in carries, yards and touchdowns. James White also played every regular-season game and ranked second on the team in receptions with 60. The X factor here has been Dion Lewis, who missed the first nine games after undergoing preseason knee surgery but has impressed since returning. He appears to be at full strength as he readies for his postseason debut.
Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola both returned to practice last week after sitting out Week 17 with knee and ankle injuries, respectively. If both are ready to go, the Patriots would have five healthy, legitimate wide receivers at their disposal against the Texans: Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Mitchell, Amendola and Michael Floyd, plus wideout/special teamer Matthew Slater. Amendola has not played since Week 13.
Gronkowski’s injury was a killer, but Martellus Bennett has been a warrior, battling through ankle and shoulder injuries to play in all 16 games. The Patriots also integrated Matt Lengel into the offense more near the tail end of the regular season.
The O-line has benefited most from good health. All five starters played upward of 1,000 snaps this season (90-plus percent), and only seven linemen were on the field for more than one offensive snap. The 2015 Patriots used 12 different linemen, and none played more 863 snaps.
Malcom Brown spent a few weeks in the doghouse, but his drop in playing time was because of a lack of consistency, not an injury. This unit has been very healthy all season. Alan Branch missed practice Thursday and Tuesday, though, so his status is worth monitoring.
Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard and breakout star Trey Flowers all should be good to go.
A knee injury limited Pro Bowler Dont’a Hightower somewhat during the regular season, causing him to miss three games. Hightower played in Week 17, though, and Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy both have stayed healthy over the past few months.
Cornerback Malcolm Butler and safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung hardly left the field this season, with all three playing more than 96 percent of defensive snaps. No. 2 corner Logan Ryan didn’t have any injury issues, either, and Eric Rowe has been active for the past three games after missing one with a hamstring issue.
Thumbnail photo via Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY Sports Images