The New England Patriots will be in the air early this afternoon, bound for Atlanta and Super Bowl LIII.

Julian Edelman will be en route to his fourth Super Bowl in eight seasons.

That's a pretty good percentage, playing in football's championship 50 percent of the time. It's similar to Tom Brady's nine Super Bowls in 18 years. We won't charge either with the extra year they missed due to ACL injuries -- Brady in 2008, Edelman in 2017.

Edelman was missed last January and early February. While Danny Amendola did a great Edelman imitation in the post-season last year, averaging 9 receptions and 116 yards over three games, including two touchdowns, it wasn't the same.

The Patriots were missing something in that Eagles game, and it wasn't offense. The Patriots finished the last Super Bowl with 33 points.

What the Patriots were missing was Edelman's toughness. Though the Patriots may have in Edelman's absence, even in the postseason, in early February they missed his presence.

"I've said it before and I'll say it again," said Patriots special teams star Matthew Slater, who arrived in Foxborough in 2008, the year before Edelman was drafted in the seventh round.

"He represents this team as much as any of us," said Slater, who's locker is just 10 feet away. "Jules is our fighter. He's inspiring to watch. He's inspiring to be around."

As a receiver, Edelman's connection with his quarterback couldn't be any stronger -- unlike the relationship between Brady and coach Bill Belichick, which appears to be fluid and complex.

Brady and Edelman are unwavering. Both are all-in.

"He's one of my best friends," said Brady. "He's one of the most dependable teammates I've ever had."

Edelman looks at himself more as Brady's wingman than his equal.

"Come on, man," said Edelman. "He's the best that ever lived. ... I'm just a guy."

Whatever.

Brady's run the last four or five years, regular season and postseason, is epic, but Edelman's run as Brady's go-to guy is just as impressive.

In his last 12 playoff games, since Wes Welker left as free agent, Edelman has 96 receptions, 1,196 yards and three touchdowns. That averages to 8 catches and nearly 100 yards.

But Edelman's role on the Patriots isn't purely about the stats. (The Pats are 10-2 in those playoff games.)

More memorable are the big receptions he's made, like the game-winner over the Seahawks, not to mention a big 3rd-and-13 reception over the middle on the first fourth-quarter touchdown of that same game, Super Bowl XLIX.

Or, how about the Super Bowl win over the Atlanta Falcons two years after that? Edelman's catch on the tipped ball, with legs and arms tangled between his hands, deserves mention with David Tyree's helmet grab for the Giants against the Patriots in 2008.

Last Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium was arguably the most clutch performance of Edelman's career, beginning the go-ahead drive in the final two minutes with a 19-yard reception, then opening the game-winning drive in overtime with a 20-yarder, followed by two consecutive 3rd-and-10 receptions for 20 and 15 yards, respectively.

"Julian is a competitor," Belichick said after that win. "From his first playoff game against the Ravens to tonight, this guy gives you all he has, every play, all the time. We all make mistakes out there. All have plays we'd like to have back that aren’t perfect. But no one competes harder than Julian does, and he puts a lot into it.

"You know what you are going to get with him," added Belichick. "He is a very physically and mentally tough football player."

Edelman's importance to the Patriots isn't just appreciated in Foxborough. Others have taken notice too.

Former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason mentioned Edelman and the words "Hall of Fame" in the same sentence -- remarkable considering he hasn't been to one Pro Bowl since 2009.

Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders, now an NFL Network analyst, has said Edelman might be his favorite player in the NFL and that under different circumstances maybe he'd get his due.

Maybe it's coming.

Maybe it will come late Sunday night when the confetti drops from the Mercedes-Benz Stadium rooftops.

You can email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.

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