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Christopher L. Gasper

For Julian Edelman, it’s been a long, strange trip back to the Super Bowl

Julian Edelman has a streak of 12 straight postseason games with at least five receptions.
Julian Edelman has a streak of 12 straight postseason games with at least five receptions. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)

ATLANTA — After the Patriots’ AFC Championship game victory, wide receiver and Tom Brady Circle of Trust lifetime platinum member Julian Edelman said there was a clutch gene and Brady had it.

Edelman is more familiar with double passes than the double helix, but an analysis of his DNA would reveal that he shares the clutch playoff gene with Brady.

The Little Guy has a knack for coming up huge in the playoffs and in Super Bowls — see XLIX (2015) and LI (2017). That’s a comforting thought as the Patriots prepare to face the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII on Sunday, seeking their sixth Lombardi Trophy, as is the fact that this time they’ll have Edelman in uniform.

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It has been a long, strange trip to back to the Super Bowl for Brady’s most trusted target and the poster boy for Patriots ingenuity and adaptability. Like you and me, Edelman was a spectator for the loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last February. He missed the miserable Minnesota Mall Super Bowl and all of last season after he tore the ACL in his right knee on the opening possession of the third preseason game, crumpling to the turf in Detroit following an 18-yard reception. His return was further delayed when he was suspended for the first four games of this season for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.

Just like this Patriots team, Edelman saved his best football for the playoffs. This postseason, Edelman has 16 receptions for 247 yards — 15.4 yards per catch. He has left no doubt that he’s back and no doubt that Brady still has a No. 1 wide receiver. A seventh-round pick and converted college quarterback, Edelman has always played with a chip on his shoulder and has always been a go-to when the chips are on the table.

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“He is clutch,” said tight end Rob Gronkowski. “He is one of the clutchest players you can have, and just the way he plays the game . . . you can tell he just loves it, and the way he plays the game is just passion. It brings a lot out of other players too when you see him playing like that.”

A torn ACL can be the death knell for a shifty slot receiver, especially one on the wrong side of 30, but Edelman returned to form and returned to the Super Bowl. Like his BFF, Brady had to return from a torn ACL and was forced to sit out the first four games of a season with an NFL suspension (a little matter called Deflategate). But he didn’t have to deal with both in the same season.

“I’m so impressed with everything [this year],” Brady said. “Julian is an incredibly hard worker, and he’s got a lot of mental toughness. To overcome the injury like he did was, um, you know, most guys have kind of a down year when they come back from an ACL, and I wouldn’t say that Julian has really had that.

“Julian has been a big part of our offense since he came back, and I know he’s feeling really healthy this time of year, and that’s a good thing for our football team.”

Julian Edelman is fourth all-time on the list with 30 regular-season touchdown receptions from Tom Brady, trailing just Rob Gronkowski, Randy Moss, and Wes Welker, plus has another five in the playoffs.
Julian Edelman is fourth all-time on the list with 30 regular-season touchdown receptions from Tom Brady, trailing just Rob Gronkowski, Randy Moss, and Wes Welker, plus has another five in the playoffs.(File/Jim Davis/Globe staff)

No one has caught more postseason passes from No. 12 than Edelman. With 105 catches, Edelman is second all-time in postseason receptions to Jerry Rice. He has five career 100-yard postseason performances; only Rice (eight) and another Hall of Famer, Michael Irvin (six), have more. Edelman owns the most postseason receiving yards in Patriots history and ranks fourth all-time with 1,271. With 45 yards Sunday, he’ll pass Cliff Branch and Irvin and claim second.

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But it’s not the numbers that define Edelman’s penchant for postseason heroics. It’s the money moments. His canon of catches includes two of the biggest in Patriots Super Bowl history. He turned his defender inside-out to catch the game-winning touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX to cap the 2014 season. That was part of a nine-catch, 109-yard day against the Legion of Boom.

His pass-catching piece de resistance was authored the last time he played in a Super Bowl, following the 2016 season. The Patriots finally got a divine Super Bowl reception of their own, courtesy of Edelman, as they rallied from a 28-3 deficit to win Super Bowl LI in overtime. Enveloped by Atlanta Falcons, Edelman miraculously plucked a deflected ball off the leg of Robert Alford for a crucial 23-yard gain on the fourth-quarter drive that sent the game to overtime.

The Rams know that Edelman is capable of leaving his fingerprints on a game. Slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman questioned Brady’s ability, but offered only plaudits for Edelman.

“Julian Edelman is a great receiver. He is a hard player. He runs great routes. He’s crisp,” said Robey-Coleman. “I like his style, his tenaciousness as a small receiver. I think it’s going to be a good matchup if we ever match up in the slot. I can’t wait.”

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No one has embraced the Patriots’ underdog mentality this postseason quite like Edelman, perhaps because his career embodies it. He’s part of a receiving corps that has been discounted and disparaged, even though Edelman produced at a pace that would have given him 99 catches and 1,133 receiving yards if he had been eligible to play all 16 games. (He finished with 74 for 850 and six touchdowns in 12.)

When asked how he manages to keep delivering in the playoffs, Edelman said he doesn’t really know. He just tries to keep everything the same. Well, except his facial hair. That bushy mountain-man beard is always a sure sign it’s his time to shine, if not shave.

If Super Bowl LIII comes down to a crucial catch, you can bet that Brady will be looking for Edelman.

“It took me a while to earn that trust,” said Edelman. “I thought it was my first start against the Jets [in 2009]. We had some stuff going. That’s when I learned you have to continually earn his trust.

“You’ve got to show it weekly, daily. It’s not just a one-time thing. It’s [bangs the table three times] you’ve got to go, because he is constantly trying to improve. If you don’t, he’s done.”

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Edelman has shown that he’s far from done.


Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.