Edson: Here’s What Separates the Patriots from the Lions

Kyle Van Noy’s smile said it all Sunday night.

He was standing on the New England Patriots sidelines getting pats on the back from his teammates after forcing a fumble that handed the ball back to his team deep in Pittsburgh Steelers territory.

Four months earlier he was standing on the Detroit Lions sidelines gathering dust.

He was a former second-round draft pick of the Lions who had struggled with injuries early in his career. But when he was healthy, the Lions determined that Van Noy wasn’t good enough to fit into their system.

So four months ago the Lions traded Van Noy and a seventh-round draft pick to the Patriots for a sixth-round pick. In other words, they pretty much just gave Van Noy away.

Now the former Lion is having the last laugh. He and his New England teammates will be playing the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl.

Why was Van Noy considered a dud by the Lions and a "find" by the Patriots? It’s the system, baby.

New England was looking for a mobile linebacker who could do two things well: Be a sure tackler and play zone coverage. That means the Patriots weren’t looking for a superstar who ran all over the field making tackles on ball carriers and defending the pass.

They wanted a linebacker who simply fit into their system. And that’s what they got in Van Noy. He plays his role well, as he showed in Sunday’s AFC Championship win over Pittsburgh. He has a knack for coming up with big plays, like he used to do in college.

Give the Patriots scouting department and coaching staff credit. They are always looking around the league for castoffs and spare parts. They take those spare parts and make them useful tools in their defense and offense.

And it’s not just the defense. Over the years, look at the number of undersized and overlooked wide receivers the Patriots have used to build their dynasty. Hall of Fame quarterback doesn’t need great receivers to make the system work. He simply needs gutty, sure-handed pass receivers who aren’t afraid to go over the middle, make the tough catch and take a pounding.

On the other side of the ball, the Patriots defense doesn’t have big-name stars. They let their system do the work. And that shows in the way they pick up players and develop them like they did Kyle Van Noy.

Now we have a couple of weeks to contemplate New England vs. Atlanta in the Super Bowl. Do you like the upstart Falcons and their big-time offense? Or do you favor the battle-tested Patriots?

We’ll be bombarded with more information than we need until the game kicks off. But until that time, remember to consider players like Kyle Van Noy and how he plugs in to the system.

The Detroit Lions took some strides forward this past season in making the playoffs. But there is still much more to be done to go from playoff qualifier to Super Bowl champion.

Nick Edson is a retired Hall of Fame columnist and sportswriter. He worked 25 years at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, 18 as sports editor. He is a two-time president of the Associated Press Sports Editors Association and a member of the Michigan Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.