The New England Patriots enter the final quarter of the season at 9-3 and have already clinched the AFC East title for the fourth year in a row and their 10th in the past 12 years. But the Patriots are a banged up lot and the myriad of injuries takes its toll on every NFL team throughout the long 16 game season.

This is the time of year where coaching and depth make a big difference. With depth, when players sometimes key players go down, the backups have to step up and play at a high level. Coaching is extremely important as the staff has to have the players ready to step in and play as seamlessly as possible.

Chandler Jones, Trevor Scott and Jake Bequette give the Patriots much needed depth at the DE position with Scott providing valuable veteran presence (Steve Balestrieri photo)

Patriots Proof That Depth Wins-The mantra at Foxboro is ‘next man up’ can be both very true and at the same time very ridiculed around certain people in Boston as being completely false. There is a train of thought that depth, while needed is completely overblown in Patriots circles, and that the Patriots continue to win because of the Bradys, Wilforks, Welkers et.al.

I certainly agree with that line of reasoning…. to a degree. For as long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are at the helm, the team will have a puncher’s chance at beating about anybody. But what separates the Patriots or any other good team from the also-rans is the fact that the subs that come in can play at a high level. I totally disagree that the ‘next man up’ mantra is false.

Scarnecchia Key for OL- Look no farther than the Patriots offensive line play this season, missing Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, and Sebastian Vollmer for large parts of the season, this is a unit that’s been at 40 percent strength for large periods of the season. And yet through the first five games of the team’s winning streak, they gave up two sacks of Tom Brady before giving up four in Miami on Sunday. Even with that, that is giving up just one sack a game for six games.

That’s an area where Dante Scarnecchia gets and rightfully so, all the credit. Think back to the pre-season, the same said starters were out and back-ups Donald Thomas, Nick McDonald and Marcus Cannon were not ready to play and the results were plain to see.

Had the Patriots OL and coaches continued to play at a level like that, this team would be nowhere near 9-3 and probably closer to 7-5 or even perhaps 6-6. Certainly part of that credit goes to Tom Brady who gets rid of the ball extremely quickly and with great accuracy. But where would the Patriots be Brady or not with the kind of OL play we saw in the preseason? They wouldn’t have clinched their division and certainly not 9-3.

Stallworth ‘next WR up’- The Patriots are thin at WR right now, they let Deion Branch and Greg Salas go and now Julian Edelman is hurt as well as Rob Gronkowski and will likely be out for an extended period of time. Aaron Hernandez just came back from an ankle injury.

So the team has brought back Donte Stallworth who knows the offense, has Brady’s trust and played at a high level here back in 2007. Stallworth was here for training camp but was let go due a case of the drops in practice. He still has speed and will be looked to for more than just be a warm body on the bench.

While it’s far from a given that Stallworth will excel here, the coaches have to feel confident that he’ll give them a good chance to fill in the blanks between Welker, Lloyd and Hernandez. And if Stallworth falters it won’t be because he wasn’t prepared.

And still don’t close the door on Branch or Jabar Gaffney who is also hurt and serving a suspension of his own. They know the system and can provide solid play…more depth.

Defense Depth Tested- The Patriots have taken a blow on the defensive side of the ball when rookie Defensive End Chandler Jones went down with an injury. Things were compounded when Jones’ primary back-up at DE and also at DT in sub-packages Jermaine Cunningham was suspended for using PEDs for four games.

So Trevor Scott became the ‘next man up’ on defense, the result…two sacks and a forced fumble that led to a Patriots touchdown. Scott was brought in as a free agent, a solid, talented player in Oakland who was working his way back from a serious injury two years ago. He was initially thought to be the starter until Jones was ready. But Jones surprised everyone in camp and Scott wasn’t used much until Jones went down in the Colts game.

While he was far from the reason the Patriots won, he was still a big part of it. And those contributions in the middle of the season go a long ways in deciding whether a team will get a bye or play during the wild-card game or even go golfing in January.

Do I want to see the McDonalds, Cannons or Thomas’ in the lineup against the Texans, Ravens or Niners in the playoffs? No but we do know that each of them can perform if needed when called. And their high level of play now will suit them if need be.

Depth wins in the regular season and can win in the playoffs, just look at what happens when depth is tested on teams with thin as yesterday’s soup lineups….like Gang Green.

Next man up? You’re darned straight.

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