It's funny how in New England, every negative always seems to somehow turn into a positive for the Patriots, and that's certainly been the case this season.
With the amount of starters lost on the defensive side of the football, guys who likely would have had diminished roles this season have ended up gaining valuable experience that has not only helped them greatly this year, but will likely end up paying dividends down the road in the years to come.
On the defensive side of the ball, losing defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo were obviously big hits, and the loss of tackle Tommy Kelly was obviously another tough blow. However, we saw Joe Vellano and Chris Jones get thrust into the mix, with both players providing good contributions up front. Jones has become the more productive of the two players at this point, but both have been important pieces. Had Wilfork and Kelly remained healthy, it's tough to say how many snaps either would have seen this year.
Sealver Siliga has also been a great addition after being added to their practice squad midseason, and has also played well up front. He's another player that may not have come in had either player remained healthy and he could be someone who we see grow on this roster in the years to come depending on what happens after this season.
Obviously it's not ideal and having Kelly and Wilfork at this point in the season would have been the preferred scenario. But each of the guys who have filled in have taken advantage and worked hard. As a result, the growth over the course of this season is one that has been an important part of the journey to where they are now.
Looking at the secondary the injuries to Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard over the course of this season have given a player like rookie Logan Ryan an opportunity to see more playing time, and he's certainly made the most of it. The rookie out of Rutgers finished with five interceptions, the most of any Patriot this season. Injuries to safety Steve Gregory also forced rookie Duron Harmon into the mix, and we've seen growth from him as well that will certainly make him a better player in the years ahead.
At the linebacker position, the injuries to Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes have given opportunities for Dont'a Hightower to take on an expanded role this year and while it was shaky early on, last night was one of the best performances we've seen from him. Had he not been thrust into the fire, it may have kept him from developing into the player he is now. The same can definitely be said for rookie Jamie Collins, who had an unbelievable night against Indianapolis, including a pass defensed down field in coverage where on first glance he actually looked like a defensive back.
Belichick had high praise for him after the game, and said Collins is a team player that he loves having as part of his football team.
"First of all, he's worked very hard," said Belichick. "He's been very dependable and durable. He hasn't missed, you know, anything all year. He started out playing...not started out but he's playing outside linebacker in regular, he plays off the line in some regular, he plays nickel linebacker, and you saw today he's out there on a split out tight end covering them on fade patterns. And he's blitzing up the middle and he's making tackles in line.
"I think he's pretty comfortable wherever he is, whether he's out in space, or covering a guy 20-yards down field, or one-on-one coverage with no help or whether he's in line, taking on blockers or blitzing, or covering tight ends from in close. He's a very versatile athlete that's smart, works hard, really has a great team attitude and I love having him on our team. He brings a lot, doesn't want to come off the field. I mean even when he's playing defense, he wants to be out there in the kicking game, he's got good stamina. He's very athletic, and tough."
Injuries are never a "best case scenario" in any sense, but as usual the Patriots took a bad situation and turned it into a positive, which now has their team in position to potentially make a title run. Looking back at how things looked a couple of months ago, it's hard not to appreciate how far they've come.
The good news is that through it all it's helped them grow and has them still in the mix with the top remaining teams in the league. It's hard not to feel optimistic about their chances moving forward, and thanks to the experience all these players have had this season and the adversity they've overcome, it's likely going to be a big key why this team remains at this level in the years ahead.