Julian Edelman's 'heart of a lion' rekindles Patriots' fire

You don’t have to tell the New England Patriots how important Julian Edelman is.

Consider this sampling of comments after last Saturday’s 27-20 AFC Divisional Playoff victory against the Kansas City Chiefs.

“He’s a good route runner and he’s good after the catch, he can make yards on his own,” said head coach Bill Belichick. “It’s great to have Julian back.”

Said quarterback Tom Brady: “He’s got as much heart as anybody. It’s a serious injury to come back from, and to play the way that he did today was great. He's always been one of the hardest workers … I've ever played with, one of the most determined young men that's on this team.”

And this, from fellow wide receiver Matthew Slater: “It changes everything. Julian Edelman is a very unique player in this league and the things that he's able to do, inside and outside route running-wise, poses a lot problems.”

Edelman returned to the field in the divisional playoff after missing the final seven weeks of the regular season with a foot injury. The Patriots, unbeaten before Edelman got injured, went 3-4 during his absence. In fact, New England lost two consecutive games entering the playoffs.

On Saturday, Edelman didn’t score and he missed the first four catches aimed his way. But he was still the Patriots leading receiver, with 100 yards on 10 catches, the most critical a 12-yard reception in the waning minutes that easily could have resulted in an interception. On 2nd-and-12, Brady opted to throw and Kansas City deflected the ball before it hit tight end Rob Gronkowski and ultimately settled in Edelman’s arms at the Kansas City 35-yard line.

Despite that, it’s the dropped balls that will have Edelman, a Kent State alum who is in his seventh pro season, working even harder to prepare for Sunday’s AFC Championship against the Denver Broncos.

“You can always play better and to go out and play good in the next game, you can't win ball games doing those kinds of things (dropping balls),” Edelman said. “So, I'm personally going to have to get back and do a lot more.”

During the regular season, Edelman was a regular target for Brady, who made him the leading receiver in two of nine games before the injury. Edelman scored 11 touchdowns in those nine games. He averaged nearly 66 yards per game and more than 11 yards per reception.

Edelman’s return gives Brady an extra target and, according to Dan Connolly, a Patriots captain in 2014 who retired last year, elevates the play of the offense.

“The I notice is that with Patriots, it works when all the parts are working,” he said. “Gronk is great player, Tom is a great player, but I think they all compliment each other ... it seems like when Julian was back in the game, Gronk played better, Tom had more options, the offensive line didn’t have to hold blocks as long. Him being on the field just brings out the best of everyone.”

At 5-10, 198 pounds, Edelman is a bit undersized for an NFL wide receiver, but his athleticism, strength and drive have allowed him to develop into a critical threat. The key, however, is that there is more to the package than physical attributes.

“That guy has got the heart of a lion,” said defensive end Rob Ninkovich. “He's just never going to give up on a play. I've been with him for a very long time now, and I respect the way that he plays and how much he gives this team. So again, tons of respect for No. 11, and I'm happy that he was able to be out there doing his thing.”

Connolly echoed Ninkovich.

“His work ethic and the way he competes on the field is a leadership quality that far exceeds anything you can say,” Connolly said. “He’s leading through example and that’s more important than anything he can say.”

Above: Julian Edelman of the New England Patriots takes the field against the Kansas City Chiefs for Saturday's AFC Divisional Playoff at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

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