Brady and Belichick have had a little help over the years
No head coach or player in NFL history has appeared in more conference championship games than New England’s Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, respectively. Though much of the credit belongs to that duo, there were plenty of Patriots players who helped along the way. As the franchise prepares for its 10th AFC title game in the past 16 seasons Sunday at Denver, FOX Sports senior NFL writer Alex Marvez takes a look at 10 under-the-radar contributors to all that success.
Getty ImagesChristian Petersen
RB Kevin Faulk: 1999-2011
A holdover from the Pete Carroll coaching era in New England, Faulk became one of Belichick’s favorite players -- and with good reason. He was the ideal backup running back, excelling as a situational player on passing downs and a special teams leader. He was beloved by his Patriots teammates as well for his character and work ethic.
RB Antowain Smith: 2001-03
Back in 2001, the first Patriots roster to win a Super Bowl was chock full of castoffs from other teams. Smith was among the best of those 20 free-agent pickups. A 1997 first-round draft selection by Buffalo, Smith gradually fell so out of favor with the Bills coaching staff that he was a healthy scratch for five games during the 2000 season. Smith was rejuvenated with the Patriots, rushing for 2,781 yards and 21 touchdowns over the next three seasons. Smith played a pivotal role in helping to carry New England’s offense as Brady learned the ropes in his first year as a starter in 2001.
Getty ImagesRick Stewart
WR David Patten: 2001-04
A one-time member of the now-defunct Albany Firebirds in the Arena Football League, the undrafted Patten worked his way up into becoming a three-time Super Bowl winner with the Patriots. Excluding an injury-shortened 2003, Patten averaged 52 catches for 791 yards and five touchdowns in his other three seasons in New England. During a 2001 win over Indianapolis, Patten became only the sixth player in NFL history to run, catch and throw for a touchdown in the same game.
Getty ImagesDaniel Berehulak
LB Roman Phifer: 2001-04
Phifer already had played in the NFL for 10 seasons when signing with the Patriots at age 33. Even at that point in his career, Phifer remained one of the NFL’s best run stuffers. He was credited with 297 tackles between 2001 and 2003 before shifting to a backup role in 2004.
Getty ImagesBrian Bahr
LB Larry Izzo: 2001-08
Although he never started a game in an NFL career that spanned 14 seasons, Izzo more than earned his keep as one of the league’s top special-teams players. Such experience has served Izzo well now that his playing days are over. He broke into coaching and was recently named Houston’s special-teams coordinator.
Getty ImagesRick Stewart
G Stephen Neal: 2001-10
Neal never played a college football game. He was an All-American amateur wrestler at Cal-Bakersfield who was signed as an undrafted rookie by the Patriots and waived at the end of training camp. Neal then spent time on Philadelphia’s practice squad before being re-signed toward the end of the 2001 season. He ultimately became a first-string player in 2004 and retired with 81 starts and three Super Bowl rings to his credit.
Getty ImagesMark Konezny
WR David Givens: 2002-05
Givens entered the NFL as a seventh-round Patriots draft choice whose college career at Notre Dame began at running back. Through hard work that included extensive time catching passes from a JUGS machine and tutoring from fellow wide receiver Troy Brown, Givens improved to the point that he caught one touchdown pass in seven consecutive postseason games (Pittsburgh’s John Stallworth held the NFL record with eight). Unfortunately, Givens’ career essentially ended in 2006 after he had signed a five-year, $24 million contract with Tennessee as a free agent. He suffered a knee injury from which he never truly recovered before being waived in 2008.
Getty ImagesStreeter Lecka
DE Jarvis Green: 2002-09
A part-time starter during his eight seasons, Green made his mark as one of New England’s most versatile defensive linemen. Fans should remember Green’s contributions on two Super Bowl-winning teams rather than a play that helped cost New England another Lombardi Trophy. Despite having a fistful of jersey, Green was unable to sack New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning on a key completion to David Tyree in the fourth quarter of what ultimately proved the game-winning touchdown drive in Super Bowl 42.
Getty ImagesRob Tringali/Sportschrome
DE Rob Ninkovich: 2010-present
Ninkovich hasn’t reached a Pro Bowl during his 10 NFL seasons, but his value to the Patriots can’t be underestimated. The Saints’ 2006 fifth-round draft pick has been New England’s most consistent defender since becoming a starter in 2010 and leads the NFL in fumble recoveries during that time frame with 14. He also has recorded at least 6.5 sacks in each of the past five years and will be making his 95th consecutive start against the Broncos.
LT Nate Solder: 2011-present
The 2015 Patriots are getting by with Sebastian Vollmer at left tackle but would be in better straits across the offensive line if Solder weren’t on injured reserve with a torn biceps. In 2011, Solder immediately handled the challenge of replacing a standout left tackle in Matt Light when thrust into the starting lineup as a rookie. How much the Patriots appreciate Solder became clear last September, when he signed a three-year, $28-million contract extension with $20 million guaranteed.