Final power ranking: 4
Preseason power ranking: 6
Biggest surprise: How about a murder charge to a tight end who had previously been thought of as a centerpiece of the team? Aaron Hernandez's murder charge threatened to sink the Patriots' season before it even started, but in a credit to Bill Belichick, his staff and the players, it was hardly a distraction as they once again advanced to the AFC Championship Game. There were no on-field surprises that could come close to topping that.
.Biggest disappointment: Rob Gronkowski's knee injury Dec. 8. This falls into the wider-ranging category of “season-ending injuries to top players” and the Patriots had their fair share early in the season -- defensive tackles Vince Wilfork (Sept. 29) and Tommy Kelly (Oct. 6), linebacker Jerod Mayo (Oct. 13), and starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (Oct. 27). But Gronkowski’s felt like a season-changer in some respects, deflating some of the optimism that had been built up at that point because the offense looked markedly different with him back on the field.
Biggest need: Re-signing cornerback Aqib Talib. The four-game stretch of football he played from Sept. 22 to Oct. 13 was as impressive as we’ve seen from a Patriots cornerback in recent memory, the highlight coming when he was matched up against Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and held him without a catch before leaving in the third quarter with injury. The 2013 season showed how the Patriots’ defense is different with a healthy No. 1 matchup option like Talib, with the final piece of evidence coming in the AFC Championship Game when he left with a knee injury in the second quarter.
Team MVP: It has to be quarterback Tom Brady, with Talib, receiver Julian Edelman and kicker Stephen Gostkowski the other strong candidates. This was a “do more with less” type season for Brady, similar to 2006, and he willed the offense to productive results despite almost a complete overhaul. He’s the consummate leader, almost like another coach, and the Patriots don’t advance to the conference championship without him.
GRADING THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS PositionGradeAnalysis
Quarterbacks After six weeks or so, some were wondering if Father Time was catching up with Brady, but some of the early struggles were more because of the changes around him. His toughness earns major points as his right throwing hand took a major sho t Oct. 20 and he played through it. In fact, he played every offensive snap for the first time in his career. The disappointment is that one of his worst games was his last.
Running Backs Ball-security issues for Stevan Ridley bring the mark down, while LeGarrette Blount's late-season emergence balances the ledger. Passing back Shane Vereen missed half the season with a wrist injury and had flashes of excellence, while fullback James Develin was a key contributor and one of the team's most consistent players. Wide Receivers Outside of Edelman, who turned in a career year as the most consistent threat, it was a revolving door. Danny Amendola probably should have been on season-ending injured reserve, but played through a groin injury, while the rookie trio of Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, and Josh Boyce had flashes of excellence but also the predictable growing pains.
Tight Ends When Gronkowski was on the field, the offense took on a different look. Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan maximized their skill sets, with their primary contributions coming as blockers. They are solid team players.
Offensive Line With expectations raised as all five starters returned from 2012, it was a surprise to see the struggles of this unit at various points of the year (e.g., Oct. 6 at Bengals, Oct. 20 at Jets), especially on the biggest stage in the AFC Championship Game. Things looked like they were really clicking late in the season until the final thud. Defensive Line This is a balance between performance and expectations, because once starting defensive tackles Wilfork and Kelly were lost for the season, what could realistically be expected when thrusting players like Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Sealver Siliga into the mix? They hung in there. Ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich were iron men.
Linebackers When three-down linebacker Mayo was lost to a season-ending injury Oct. 13, roles were altered and players like Dont'a Hightower were put into a tough spot outside of a comfort zone. That was accounted for, as was the playoff surge by rookie Jamie Collins.
Secondary Not as many big plays given up in 2013, and the consistency of having the same personnel returning was a big factor in the uptick in performance. Talib and safety Devin McCourty are two of the NFL's best. As with Brady at quarterback, the final game wasn't necessarily reflective of what we saw in the previous 17.
Special Teams The Patriots ranked first in the annual rankings produced by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, which are widely respected. Captain Matthew Slater earned a Pro Bowl berth, and kicker Gostkowski was a first alternate.
Coaching For the Patriots to lose as many key players as they did to injuries, it's a credit to Bill Belichick and his staff -- in addition to the players -- that the team advanced to the AFC Championship Game. A strong case could be made that this was Belichick's best season.