Bob Glauber Newsday columnist Bob Glauber

Bob Glauber has been Newsday's national football columnist since 1992. He was Newsday's football writer covering the Jets

DENVER

There’s no doubt that Tom Brady is the single most indispensable player on the Patriots, and there’s no way the Patriots are this good for this long without the future Hall of Fame quarterback.

But what about the second most important player on this year’s team? Some would argue it’s Rob Gronkowski, the All- Pro tight end who is as gifted a pass-catcher as he is a blocker. But there also is a case to be made for a much less obvious candidate, a player who is the shortest man on the field in most games but whose performance has been vital to the team’s success.

How significant has 5-10, 198-pound receiver Julian Edelman become? Well, consider that when the 29-year-old wideout has been in the lineup, the Patriots have won 16 consecutive games and 22 of 23.

Perhaps it’s an overstatement to say the reason the Patriots struggled to a 2-4 record in their final six games was solely tied to Edelman’s absence as he recovered from a broken foot. But the Patriots sure did seem like a different team when he returned last week for the divisional round. Edelman had a team-high 10 catches for 100 yards in New England’s 27-20 win over the Chiefs at Gillette Stadium.

Talk about an unlikely guy to be considered the straw that stirs the drink. But Edelman’s presence really does make a major difference for the offense, and Brady is much more at ease when he has his reliable slot receiver on the field. Edelman is one of the NFL’s best route-runners, and his toughness in not only making the catch but producing yards after the catch makes this offense that much tougher to defend.

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“Just having another good player out there,” coach Bill Belichick said as the Patriots prepared for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. “The more you have, the harder it is to defend. And Julian makes [the yards] after the catch. He’s a strong runner after the catch, along with some other guys we have. So it’s the passing game, it’s the run-after-catch game, and that helps spread the defense and opens up things for other guys. So the more threats, the more weapons you have on the field, the easier it is to attack.”

Edelman’s personal unbeaten streak is remarkable. The last time the Patriots lost when he was in the lineup was Nov. 30, 2014, at Green Bay (26-21). He was a key performer in the Patriots’ Super Bowl run last season with 26 catches for 281 yards in the postseason and a touchdown in the Super Bowl win over the Seahawks.

Edelman is as humble as he is talented, so he’s never comfortable taking the credit for his production. “It’s good to go out there with your teammates,” he said. “But we have a lot of work to do.”

Edelman said a big reason for his seamless reintroduction into the lineup last week was remaining around the team while rehabbing from his injury.

“I know the offense, Tom [Brady] knows me and the coaches kept me mentally in the game while I was hurt, going to meetings and learning the game plans,” he said. “It was one of those things where it almost felt like the first game of the year.”

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The trick now is to play in the last game of the year. One more win over the Broncos, and Edelman will get the chance to be a part of the first repeat champions since Brady led the 2003-04 Patriots to back-to-back titles.

But he’s not looking too far ahead.

“Only the next game matters,” he said. “The next game’s going to be the toughest game of the year.”

Unless, of course, there’s a next one after that.

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