Unheralded defensive trio makes their mark in Patriots playoff victory

FOXBORO — Back when the local temperatures were sweltering hot, Adam Butler, Ricky Jean Francois and Marquis Flowers were busy being left off media-projected 53-man rosters or suiting up for other teams.

But as has been the case for years now under Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the snow comes, the wind whips thermometers at or below 0, and his team’s defensive standouts crystalize from outside the casual fan’s view to ice opposing offenses.

In last night’s 35-14 romp over the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium in the AFC divisional round, defensive linemen Butler and Jean Francois and linebacker Flowers played huge roles in dominating at the point of attack. The three had one each to combine for three of the team’s postseason-record eight sacks.

The three players are known quantities by now, but Butler is an undrafted rookie free agent. Flowers was acquired in a trade with the Cincinnati Bengals in August and largely a special teams player until late in the season. Jean Francois has been cut five times by three different teams — including once by the Patriots — since March.

“(It’s) a process that I’m enjoying, a journey that I’m enjoying,” said Jean Francois, who played six games with the Green Bay Packers this season. “Like I said, I’ve been through the ups and downs. Starting with Green Bay, it’s funny now that I’m here with the Patriots. It’s been a roller coaster, but it’s a roller coaster that I’m actually enjoying.”

Yet as was the case with the likes of cornerback Malcolm Butler and linebackers Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas three years ago, or any number of surprise standouts in a season, it doesn’t matter when, how or from where the players arrive in Foxboro. If they learn a spot, they’ll earn one, and that can change from week to week.

“Everybody on the roster’s going to have a role,” Adam Butler said. “Your role might be different the next week. Your role might change. There’s not definite spots for each position. Anybody can go.”

Flowers may be the poster boy for that position-less player for whom Belichick or defensive coordinator Matt Patricia gets the most out of. With 4.5 sacks over the past three games, Flowers has been particularly useful as a spy against mobile quarterbacks — which came especially handy last night facing Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota.

“In August, I didn’t even know where I was going to be,” Flowers said. “I’m just happy to be here, man….

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