|Looking Back: Grading the Celtics at the Trade Deadline||Bruins Dissapoint at the Trade Deadline||Bruins Acquire RW Brett Connolly||Patriots Linebacker Dont’a Hightower Out 6-7 Months|
As the New England Patriots have wrapped up the regular season at 12-4 and are preparing for the second round of the playoffs, it’s tough to challenge the idea that 2013-2014 was a season of over-achievement.
Sure, the Patriots have been enjoying 10+ win seasons since 2003 and have had first round byes in the playoffs for each the past three seasons.
But this season was different.
This season, we saw a makeshift defense and a depleted offense make 12 wins look easy, and it can be argued that they should have won even more.
It was no secret that the Patriots would be relatively short handed starting the season. Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker opted to leave behind New England and sign with the Denver Broncos, running back Danny Woodhead followed Welker to the AFC West by signing with the San Diego Chargers, tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested and put in prison after being charged with first-degree murder, and fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski entered the season as a huge question mark in terms of health.
Although they added receiver Danny Amendola in hopes of filling the gap left behind by Wes Welker, it was clear that players would need to step up.
It seemed a given that Gronk would need to be healthy and productive, Shane Vereen would need to have a breakout season, and the defense would need to be at full strength.
However, none of that happened.
Gronkowski and Vereen each wound up playing in just eight games while the Patriots defense suffered a slew of injuries.
Captains Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo were both done for the season by October and it seemed as though the Patriots secondary, already very weak, had a consistent rotation going on and off of the Injured Reserve.
So how did the Patriots manage to not only make the playoffs but also secure a first round bye in spite of a barren off-season and a regular season peppered with injuries?
The answer lies in great coaching and different players stepping up in key moments throughout the entire season.
Tom Brady was less than spectacular throughout the entire season as he threw just 25 touchdowns and finished the season with his lowest passer rating (87.3) since 2003*.
But he picked his moments, and they were usually late in the game when it mattered most.
Stephen Gostkowski was the biggest source of stability (besides Brady) for New England throughout the entire season as the kicker set a career high and team record with 38 field goals made this season in 41 attempts. But Gostkowski, like Brady, shined in clutch moments as well with three game-winning kicks, including an overtime winner against the AFC rival Broncos.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman also saw his role on the team escalate quickly this season, and he rose to the occasion. The 5’ 10” slot receiver had never been targeted by Brady more than 54 times in a season before hauling in 105 receptions in 2013. And Edelman’s 1,056 receiving yards this season dwarfed his previous career high of 359 yards in 2009.
By the end of the season, Edelman had become Brady’s go-to receiver in any and every situation.
On the other side of the ball, we saw the young New England linebacking core grow up in the absence of Mayo as Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes teamed up for 183 combined tackles and 11 tackles for a loss.
Defensive end Chandler Jones also took a huge step forward in his second season as a pro. The 23-year-old came close to doubling both his combined tackle (79) and sack (11.5) totals in 2013, as he helped shore up the Patriots defensive line with Wilfork on the sidelines.
While the Patriots had few standouts on either side of the ball, they had what they needed to bare down with the game on the line and grind out the win.
Twelve wins is an enormous accomplish for this team and as far as I’m concerned. Their presence in the playoffs is as an overachieving team that is playing with the house’s money. However, based on what we have seen in the regular season, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about New England’s chances at a deep postseason run.
*Excluding 2008 where Brady suffered season ending injury in first game of season.
Tags: Aaron Hernadez, Bill Belichick, Brandon Spikes, Chandler Jones, Danny Amendola, Danny Woodhead, Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen, Stephen Gostkowski, Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork, Wes Welker