Division Winner? Yes, as has become as close to a lock you’ll find in the NFL, the Patriots took the AFC East from clearly unprepared foes in Miami, New York and Buffalo. While the Dolphins and Jets both managed to come out even in their games against the Pats, it ultimately wouldn’t matter, as both teams finished four wins behind first place. This wasn’t as easy a division title as that number may lead you to believe, for reasons we’ll dig into shortly.
Milestones Of 2013: While certainly not surprising, despite the hardships the 2013 Patriots endured from the beginning of offseason prep to the almost-there loss in the AFC Championship game, Bellicheck, Brady and the Patriots once again got the job done for the majority of the season, losing just five games total out of the eighteen they played in. Of course, that last loss to the Broncos stung, but the fact that New England has either played in the Superbowl, or came one game short, in almost every season under Bill Bellicheck is a continuing milestone that will no doubt go down as one of the most successful dynasties in the history of the National Football League.
When we narrow our focus, we realize how adept the Hoodie and Tom Terrific are, as 2013 was a year that consisted of an injury-depleted roster and a major youth movement at many positions, some as a consequence of injury, others as a designed plan. With rookie wide receivers and without the benefit of Wes Welker, Brady put up excellent numbers mostly by utilizing the suddenly glaring skill set of Julian Edelman, who is the Welker clone the Pats thought they were getting in ex-Rams slot receiver Danny Amendola. Aaron Dobson and Kembrell Thompkins, the Pats’ youth movement at WR, each caught 30+ passes and four TDs each, and both seem to have a future with the club.
With an obviously serious murder investigation (Aaron Hernandez) and an injury-plagued season (Rob Gronkowski) forcing Josh McDaniels and his offense to switch gears early and often, the offense produced despite coming into 2013 lacking the vast majority of their pass production from 2012. Somebody didn’t give Brady and company the memo.
As the season progressed, free agent pickup LeGarrette Blount did as well, and became a focal point down the stretch, opening up the passing game even more with his inspired running. His performance should see him back in a crowded backfield that features the dual-threat Shane Vereen and the talented but fumble-prone Stevan Ridley. Of the four backs that carried more than 40 times for the Pats in 2013, no one averaged less than 4.3 yards per carry.
On the other side of the ball, injuries massacred the core of the Patriots defense, as Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo both ended up on injured reserve early in the year. Others had to step up, and a handful did; second year DE Chandler Jones quietly produced an excellent season, with 11.5 sacks and 79 combined tackles. Aqib Talib was a dominant presence when he managed to stay healthy, and Steven Gregory provided some inspired support from his strong safety position. Dont’a Hightower picked up some of the slack at linebacker, leading the team with 97 total tackles in his second season as a pro.
The Season In Review
The Patriots got things off to a shaky start, but still managed to go 3-1 in September despite narrow victories over division rivals Buffalo (23-21) and New York (13-10). The Pats moved to 3-0 after trouncing the hapless Buccaneers, but caught a loss against the then-healthy Falcons to close out a somewhat worrisome (relatively speaking) first month for the team.
October was a bit of a rollercoaster ride, with injuries beginning to mount and games beginning to turn in unexpected ways. After losing a tight, defensive battle in Cincinnati, the Pats turned around and perhaps literally stole one from the Saints. The Jets would get some revenge the following week, but New England helped themselves to an improved division record by finishing October with a well-earned win over the Dolphins.
November began with a 55-point barnstorming of the Steelers which segued into a bye week, which then segued into a disappointing loss to the Carolina Panthers. In true bounce-back fashion, the Patriots managed to best the Denver Broncos, the first team to do so in 2013.
December was, for the most part, a conspicuous month for the Patriots. Narrowly beating two of the bottom-feeding teams in the league (Houston, Cleveland) was quite unlike the Patriots’ typical December showing, and losing to Miami had many questioning their ability to maintain come January. Of course, the resiliency of the 2013 Patriots would again show itself, as they soundly defeated the Ravens and Bills to close out the regular season.
The postseason began with a very, very dangerous game; the Colts, fresh off of one of the most improbable comebacks in NFL history, were riding an emotional high into Foxboro. They would leave empty-handed, however, as the Patriots simply were the better team and played like it. Alas, despite their victory over them in the regular season, the Patriots could not best the Broncos for the AFC’s spot in the Superbowl, and the entire season, hard fought and emblematic of the quality coaching and depth that New England possesses, was all for naught in the end.
Few teams can honestly say they have no pressing needs, but the Patriots are one of them. That being said, they do need to shore up their defense, and begin to look at youthful alternatives to older vets (Wilfork) and inconsistent starters. One signing that many people completely lost track of, Cardinals veteran safety Adrian Wilson, never came to fruition as Wilson injured an Achilles before the season started and never played a game. His cap number in 2014 is modest, and his return to the field, even as a situational player, should provide major dividends.
The draft will be key for New England’s continued youth movement. While the team must stay committed to the young up-and-comers they already have, there most be an increased focus on youth across the offensive line and, perhaps, a search for the man who will eventually step in for Tom Brady once he retires. The idea that Ryan Mallett is that man is an unclear one, and if Brady plays for another three or four seasons (as he claims he will), Mallett will have been riding the bench in New England for seven or eight years, which is unheard of for anyone besides career backups.
QB – A
RB – B
WR – C
TE – D
OL – A
DL – C+
LB – B
CB – C+
FS/SS – C
K/P – B+
KR/PR – D
Team MVP: Bill Bellichick, HC
Offensive MVP: Julian Edelman, WR
Defensive MVP: Aqib Talib, CB
Rookie Of The Year: Logan Ryan, CB
Biggest Disappointment: Losing Wilfork, Mayo and Gronkowski before the playoffs began.
Very Early 2014 Projection: 11-5, Division Winner