INDIANAPOLIS -- It's almost time for kickoff in Super Bowl XLVI. Therefore, the AFC East blog wants to leave some final thoughts on under-the-radar X factors for the New England Patriots who could make an impact in this game.
1. Aaron Hernandez, TE
Analysis: We're going to start with the easiest X factor. With Rob Gronkowski limited by a left ankle injury, Hernandez needs to step up his game in the event "Gronk" struggles. Hernandez is a top-10 tight end in the NFL, although many wouldn't know it because he plays second fiddle in New England. Hernandez also is nifty and has the ability to play some running back when called upon. The Giants will be watching Gronkowski. But they probably should keep their eye even more on Hernandez, who is healthy and has big-play ability.
2. Brandon Spikes, LB
Analysis: Spikes described the past two weeks as being "caged." The high-energy linebacker is psyched to get back on the football field and play in his first Super Bowl. Spikes is New England's home-run hitter on defense. In only his second season, Spikes may not be the most consistent Patriots defender, but he makes plenty of big plays, which is needed on the big stage. Spikes led the Patriots with nine tackles and a big fourth-quarter interception in the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens. He's a big hitter who stays around the football. Spikes will be key in stopping New York's running game, led by the dual threat of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs.
3. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB
Analysis: It's no secret the Patriots will attack the Giants' secondary with the arm of future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady. But there will be times in this game when the Patriots have to run the ball to keep New York's pass rush honest. Green-Ellis has been the most consistent Patriots running back this season, and particularly in the playoffs. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry in the AFC Championship Game against a tough Ravens defense. New England needs similar production from Green-Ellis in the Super Bowl. Green-Ellis won't get a ton of opportunities, but he needs to make his carries count.
4. Sebastian Vollmer, OT
Analysis: Vollmer hasn't played a game since Nov. 27 due to back and foot injuries. But the Super Bowl against the Giants is the perfect time for Vollmer to return. New York will bring a giant pass rush. Vollmer is listed as questionable, but he is expected to play. He will pair with rookie Nate Solder as a solid one-two punch at right tackle. Sometimes the pair could play together on the right side to provide max-protection for Brady.
5. Stephen Gostkowski, K
Analysis: Remember Adam Vinatieri? Patriots fans had the utmost confidence in the playoffs when it was time for Vinatieri to make a clutch kick. The confidence was for good reason. Vinatieri was money during New England's three Super Bowl wins. But how do Patriots fans feel about Gostkowski? It's tough to say. There's no way of knowing how Gostkowski will respond until he's in these pressure situations. He's been good so far, but Gostkowski has never kicked in the Super Bowl. We saw in the conference title games how important field goal kicking is. Gostkowski needs to be ready if his number is called.