By Tim Graham
Don't overlook, however, the importance of left guard Logan Mankins. The four-time Pro Bowler is one of the NFL's top ogres.
In a division loaded with great offensive linemen, I ranked Mankins the AFC East's ninth-best player regardless of position entering the season. His peers voted him the 64th-best player in the league for the NFL Network's "Top 100" list -- ahead of stars such as Roddy White, A.J. Green, Nnamdi Asomugha and Dwight Freeney.
Then it's notable for the Patriots' offense that Mankins already has missed two practices this week with a hip injury, putting his status in question for Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills in Ralph Wilson Stadium.
New England has given up seven sacks this year with Mankins in the lineup. Without him, the path to Brady opens up that much more for Buffalo's warming pass rush.
Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams told me this week he enjoys tangling with Mankins every year, but I'm sure Williams wouldn't be downtrodden if Mankins couldn't play or was less than 100 percent.
"He's a big guy, a physical player," Williams said. "He stays after you. He plays hard. A lot of times you see guys that are talented but don't play as hard as he does. He stays after guys.
"We've gone at it over the years, and it's always fun to play guys that considered some of the best. ... When you get in the week and you play players with good reputations, you look forward to the challenge because of where they've been and the team they've stood for. It's always fun to play the best."
Mankins is a major reason the Patriots' offense has been able to plug in a variety of running backs -- bruisers or slashers, undrafted players or waiver pickups -- and still perform at a high level. In his seven seasons, the Patriots have finished in the top 10 in total offense six times.
Mankins went to the Pro Bowl and was voted first-team All-Pro in 2010 -- despite playing only nine games because of a contract dispute.
Williams, one of the NFL's most underrated players, isn't overly impressed by the accolades. He pointed out those are the rewards that are given to players on winning teams.
As such, Williams isn't disposed to fawning over the Patriots. He just wants to beat them.
"Obviously, you have great respect for them for what they have done and the team that they are," Williams said. "We want to be at the level of team that they're at. But by no stretch of the imagination does that mean that people are going to quiver when they're coming to town.
"They have to play the same amount of snaps that we do. With us, if we can continue to play well and go out and make plays Sunday, I think teams are going to notice and say, 'We have to prepare for these guys because they can play.' That starts this Sunday: division opponent, team that's owned our division, been to the Super Bowl, conference champions.
"We have a big challenge in front of us, but we're not going to get to where they are by being scared when they roll in here and backing off. We have to get after them Sunday."
(Photo: Associated Press)