For most teams, losing a Pro Bowl middle linebacker early in the regular season is enough adversity to send a defense into a tailspin. For the second straight season, Patriots captain Jerod Mayo (37 tackles, 16 assists, one sack) went down with a season-ending injury well before the playoffs had begun. The valuable experience from having dealt with his absence so recently coupled with the fact that they had a pair of emerging talents in Jamie Collins (74 solo tackles, 42 assists, four sacks, four fumble recoveries, two interceptions) and Dont’a Hightower (51 solo tackles, 38 assists, six sacks, one fumble recovery) is one of the underrated reasons why New England has reached Super Bowl XLIX vs. Seattle on Sunday (6:30 p.m., NBC) in Glendale, Arizona.
Collins is only in his second pro season, while Hightower is in his third, but perhaps more than anyone else on the team (regardless of position), those two have made the biggest leaps from last season until now. We had seen glimpses of Collins’ incredible potential, like in his dominating performance vs. the Colts in last year’s divisional round victory. Hightower wasn’t quite a bust coming out of the University of Alabama football factory but let’s just say his first two seasons were disappointing in that he always seemed a step slow and he rarely made plays.
The unexpected addition to the linebacker corps, Akeem Ayers (16 tackles, four assists, four sacks, one interception), who was picked up midseason in a trade with the Titans, has flourished since Day 1. Coming back from an injury of his own, he lost playing time in Tennessee to the point where he barely saw the field anymore, thus making him expendable for the measly sum of an undisclosed draft pick. The Patriots still employ a 4-3 base defense (four defensive lineman, three linebackers) in most situations, but defensive coordinator Matt Patricia also deserves praise for letting his guys be more aggressive – hence the increase in sacks from the linebackers. Of course, it also helps to have a great secondary, but that’s another story.
This linebackers group will be key against the Seahawks as Marshawn Lynch is Seattle’s biggest weapon on offense (with apologies to Russell Wilson). If he has a big game like the one in the NFC Championship vs. Green Bay (157 yards rushing, one TD; one catch, 26 yards), it’s hard to see New England coming out on top. Conversely, if they can contain Lynch then they have a great chance to win their first Super Bowl title in 10 years.
Follow Metro Boston sportswriter Richard Slate on Twitter: @RichSlate