Patriots-Texans II: Three sleepers


It is playoff time for the reigning AFC champion New England Patriots. Each year, the great teams get surprise contributors to advance and make a deep playoff run.

Will the Patriots be one of those teams this year? Here are some low-key, under-the-radar players who could make an impact for New England on Sunday against the Houston Texans:

1. CB Alfonzo Dennard

Analysis: The rookie seventh-round pick has been one of the biggest surprises in the AFC East. Dennard was nearly "Mr. Irrelevant" in the 2012 draft and wound up starting seven games for a Super Bowl contender. Dennard will be tested often in the postseason opposite talented corner Aqib Talib. But Dennard has three interceptions and is getting better as the season has gone on. Dennard should get some opportunities to make plays and make an impact.

2. RB Danny Woodhead

Analysis: This is the time of year when a role player like Woodhead really excels. Woodhead, the backup tailback, is the 2013 version of Kevin Faulk. He always knows his assignments and rarely makes mental or physical errors. Woodhead shares time with young tailbacks Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. But Ridley and Vereen have limited playoff experience and are prone to mistakes. Woodhead is a dependable player Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can trust. In a postseason game where every play counts, Woodhead's opportunities could increase.

3. DE Justin Francis

Analysis: Where was Francis all season? That had to be the question Patriots fans were thinking after Francis recorded his first three sacks of the season all in Week 17 against the Dolphins. The rookie has been mostly a non-factor, but came on strong in December. He had five tackles in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers. That earned him more playing time and set the table for his three-sack performance in the regular-season finale. Was that a fluke or a sign of things to come in the playoffs? Francis has certainly earned a chance in the pass-rush rotation.