DENVER — With an offensive explosion by the Broncos — and a key defensive injury — the Patriots’ hopes of a Super Bowl title were dashed Sunday against a team with superior offensive weaponry.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. The 2013 Patriots were depleted on defense and offense, they lacked a pass rush against the league’s top quarterback, they were down two of their top linebackers, and played without their top cornerback for the final two and a half quarters of their AFC title bout.
It marks the ninth year in a row in which coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady either couldn’t reach, or couldn’t complete, their ultimate goal.
But that shouldn’t take away from the accomplishments this team has had. With a season worth of memories to go on, here are our five takeaways from the 2013 Patriots.
1. Bloodied but unbowed — Go back to the second cut day, Aug. 31, 2013. That’s when the bleeding started. The Patriots placed safety Adrian Wilson — long forgotten — on injured reserve. The veteran safety was supposed to be a boost for the secondary. Things only got worse when Vince Wilfork, the team’s monster nose tackle, went down with an ACL injury against the Atlanta Falcons Sept. 29. Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who had already been nursing a knee injury, was placed on IR Nov. 2. He was supposed to be the team’s other run stopper. Top linebacker Jerod Mayo (Oct. 16) and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (Oct. 29) were both shelved with season-ending injuries. In another blow to the offense, All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski suffered a devastating hit to the knee against the Cleveland Browns Dec. 8 after only playing seven games. It didn’t stop there. Wide receiver Josh Boyce (ankle) was placed on IR Jan. 2 and linebacker Brandon Spikes was put on IR, reluctantly, four days later. Despite all of this, Belichick was able to lead the Patriots to the AFC Championship without five of his projected defensive starters and two of his top offensive starters. That’s miracle work. It shouldn’t be surprising that the best offense in the history of the NFL was able to get a jump on the Patriots, let alone pile up 507 yards total yards. What the Patriots were able to accomplish, often hobbled every week with the players that remained active, is an astounding feat to be proud of.
2. The Patriots found different leaders each week, never quitting — The injuries created an adverse situation for New England, but calls for the “next man up” rang loudly in Foxborough, with each player passing the torch on a week to week basis. Against the Falcons, the Patriots could’ve wilted in the Georgia Dome. But Tom Brady and Aqib Talib were not having it. Shane Vereen, who missed eight games with a broken hand, played through the very same injury in Week 1 to help the Patriots beat the Buffalo Bills. It was seismic effort, much like the team’s come-from-behind win against the Broncos in Week 12. Or their come-from-behind wins against New Orleans, Cleveland and Houston. Kenbrell Thompkins caught a game-winning touchdown pass against the Saints. Danny Amendola caught one against the Browns. Stephen Gostkowski made three game-winning kicks. Logan Ryan had a key interception and sack against Baltimore. LeGarrette Blount came on as a force to be reckoned with in Week 17. And Julian Edelman proved to be a workhorse throughout. The Patriots never allowed themselves to be taken out of a game, with their greatest margin of defeat at six points. Nine of the Patriots’ 16 regular season games were decided by four points or less. There was a feeling, all the way up until Sunday’s loss to the Broncos, that each game would go down to the final possession. There was no such thing as quit for this team.
3. Youth in action — It wasn’t anticipated, certainly because of injuries, but the Patriots featured one of the youngest teams in the postseason. Seventeen players had never played in the playoffs before hitting the field against the Indianapolis Colts. A number of them were expected to just provide depth and develop this year, but were thrust into regular action. Rookie wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins were expected to be integral parts of the team’s passing attack despite frequent injuries. Between them, they totaled 69 receptions for 985 yards and eight touchdowns. Defensive backs Logan Ryan (35 tackles, 5 interceptions, 1.5 sacks) and Duron Harmon (31 tackles, 2 interceptions), both out of Rutgers, helped shore up the team’s secondary as injuries took out defensive leaders Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory in spurts. And with Wilfork and Kelly out, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, and Sealver Siliga worked extensively as the team’s interior pass rush. Jones had six sacks, Siliga had three, and Vellano finished with two. Linebacker Jamie Collins, who was kept to special teams duty for most of the regular season, exploded onto the scene in the playoffs as one of the team’s top linebackers. He had an interception and a sack against the Colts along with six tackles. He had seven tackles against the Broncos. They were all pivotal players in a season when none of them were expected to be.
4. Development of key veterans — Edelman certainly developed into the go-to slot receiver the Patriots had hoped for. He caught 105 passes in the regular season for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns. But he wasn’t the only player who took the next step for the Patriots. Chandler Jones went from being a pass-rush only specialist his rookie year to an every down player. He played 1,142 defensive snaps, tops on the team, while recording 79 tackles and 11.5 sacks. Devin McCourty improved as well, earning second team All-Pro honors and a Pro Bowl nod. The change from cornerback to safety benefited the third-year player tremendously. He tallied 69 tackles, nine passes defensed, and two forced fumbles. But the most surprising improvement, at least in terms of development over the course of the season, may be reserved for second-year linebacker Dont’a Hightower. He had a number of rough games in the early part of the season, but steadily and consistently improved as more and more responsibilities came his way. He finished with a team-high 97 tackles. The Patriots will benefit tremendously from their experience as they get back veterans from injury and plot their 2014 team.
5. Disappointments turn into opportunities — It was unfortunate that Stevan Ridley’s four fumbles reduced his playing time for the Patriots because he is a fantastic runner. But LeGarrette Blount, who finished with 772 yards rushing and a 5.0 yards per carry average on the regular season, took advantage of every opportunity given to him. He was seen as the team’s fourth running back option in training camp, with Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Brandon Bolden ahead of him on the depth chart. But at the end of the season, he plowed his way through defenses with such a menacing style that he became, by default, the team’s featured running back. He ended the year on a tear with 355 yards in a two-week span. The Patriots had other small disappointments, like the trade for Isaac Sopoaga (inactive for the team’s final four games) and the overall play of Amendola (54 receptions, 633 yards, 2 TDs), but in each case there has been someone to pick up the slack. Edelman became the team’s top receiver. Siliga, banished to the practice squad on three different teams, made enough of an impact on the defensive line to become a starter. That was a big part of this season, players taking advantage of opportunities and not letting injuries or poor performance take down the team and its season.
In the end, to finish with 13 wins and 5 losses, the Patriots possibly overachieved. Next year will certainly be different.