The Patriots enter the postseason as the second-seed in the AFC, and with their potent offense and young, improving defense, it doesn’t take much daydreaming to wonder if the best is yet to come.
But with the Patriots on a hard-earned bye this week, the time is right to consider the bests — and yes, a few worsts for the pessimists among us — through the season’s first 16 games.
Here are your regular-season superlatives for a team that should still have plenty of highlights to come.
Best comeback that turned into a blowout
There may not have been panic in the Foxborough streets, but there was the usual hyperbolic concern on the airwaves when the Patriots entered their Week 4 matchup with the Bills at 1-2. And early in the third quarter, 1-3 seemed like a distinct possibility when the Bills built their lead to 21-7 on a Donald Jones touchdown.
But Tom Brady stepped on the accelerator and the Patriots put on an awesome display of all that it capable of, tearing off 35 consecutive points (45 overall) in the second half and piling up 580 total yards en route to a 52-28 win.
Best comeback that came up short
Coming off a 28-point victory over the 11-1 Texans in Week 14, the Patriots entered their matchup with the tough, talented 49ers six days later as the consensus best-team-at-the-moment in the NFL. But such accolades proved fleeting quickly against the Niners, who took a 31-3 lead early in the third quarter.
Rather than chalk it up as a tough loss on a short week to a very good team, the Patriots showed their mettle, rallying with extraordinary efficiency, scoring 28 points in a span of 14 minutes and 17 seconds to tie the score at 31.
The Niners ultimately prevailed, 41-34, but the Patriots’ determination left us with one sentiment above all else: here’s hoping for a rematch Feb. 3 in New Orleans.
Best touchdown celebration
Rob Gronkowski’s gregarious nature and extraordinary talent result in the more-than-occasional, entertaining touchdown celebration, but the Patriots’ third-year tight end is going to have a tough time ever topping his homage to his surroundings during the Patriots’ 45-7 rout of the Rams in London during Week 8.
After the first of his two TDs in the game, Gronk marched back and forth with hilarious precision before spiking the ball, a tribute to the guards at Buckingham Palace. Of course, Gronk’s explanation was almost as good as the celebration itself, saying it was his way of saluting “the little nutcracker dudes guarding the house.’’
Worst injury to occur on the extra-point protection team
A 35-point win should be cause for celebration no matter the opponent, but the Patriots’ 59-24 blowout of the Colts in Week 11 was accompanied by some frustrating news. With 3:55 remaining in the fourth quarter, Rob Gronkowski suffered a broken forearm while blocking on the extra-point team.
Never mind the caterwauling about why he was even on the field; someone has to play, and it’s not exactly the most dangerous assignment. Gronkowski missed five weeks, and while the Patriots went 4-1 in his absence, it wasn’t quite as fun when he wasn’t around.
The Houston Texans showed up in Foxborough for their Week 14 matchup with the Patriots with an 11-1 record and some brand-new lettermen jackets designed to show their unity as the established frontrunner in the AFC. Four Tom Brady touchdown passes later, the Texans departed looking like some junior varsity poseurs.
That stands as the signature victory for the Patriots so far this season, and perhaps a pivotal loss for the Texans — they’ve won one game since.
(Honorable mention: The 31-21 victory over the Denver Peytons in Week 5.)
At the time, the Patriots’ 20-18 defeat to the Cardinals in Foxborough during Week 2 could be justified away by suggestions that the Cardinals were a team on the upswing with a top-notch defense. Unfortunately for Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, there were few similar suggestions the rest of the season — he lost his job Monday after a 5-11 season.
The loss stands as a missed opportunity for the Patriots, who would be a one-seed had they played better, or had Stephen Gostkowski’s 42-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds not sailed wide left.
The Patriots have had more than their share of big gains this season — probably not a surprise given the 555 points they scored this season — and so it’s not easy to narrow down to the most entertaining play. But the vote here goes to Aqib Talib’s interception during his Patriots debut in Week 11 against the Colts.
Upon picking off an errant Andrew Luck pass, he zig-zagged left to right and then back again, his 59-yard return for a score probably covering 100 yards when his horizontal running was added to the equation. All in all, a memorable first impression.
Best way to go out
Donte’ Stallworth owns a small place in Patriots history, having been part of the record-setting offense in 2007 (46 receptions for 697 yards) before departing as a free-agent after one year. He returned as a free agent in the offseason, was a surprise cut in training camp, but was re-signed to the active roster in advance of the Texans game.
He pulled in one pass in his season debut, but it was memorable — a 63-yard scoring strike from Tom Brady late in the Patriots’ win. It would stand as his only catch of the season — he suffered an ankle injury on the catch and was placed on injured reserve. That 63.0 yards-per-catch average this season isn’t too shabby, though.
Worst briefly recurring story
As a rookie, Stevan Ridley was relegated to postseason afterthought because of a fumbling issue late last season. So when he coughed up the football in back-to-back weeks against the Texans and Niners, the hand-wringing commenced.
Would Ridley, a dynamic runner who has added an element of explosiveness to the ground game that predecessor BenJarvus Green-Ellis could not, lose playing time or confidence after losing the ball a couple of times?
The answer: Nope.
Ridley, who finished with 1,263 yards and a dozen rushing touchdowns, had 38 carries for 158 yards and two scores over the season’s final two weeks — and he did it without fumbling.
Best forcing of a buttfumble
The humiliation of coughing up the football after plunging headfirst into an offensive lineman’s backside will forever be part of Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez’s permanent record. As it should.
But the credit for setting into motion what would become an instantly transcendent Football Folly belongs to Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who stood up offensive guard Brandon Moore and essentially used him as a blockade to prevent Sanchez from going wherever he was trying to go during a play that not only symbolized the Jets’ play during that 49-19 loss to the Patriots in Week 12, but the entire state of the franchise.
Best rookie surprise
Aqib Talib’s arrival from the Bucs is often cited as a pivotal moment in the evolution and improvement of the defensive backfield, and there’s a lot of truth in that. While he’s not a shutdown corner in the Ty Law mold, he’s athletic, physical, and more than capable, and his presence has allowed Devin McCourty to move to safety, where he has thrived.
But the emergence of Alfonzo Dennard, a seventh-round pick out of Nebraska who has three interceptions, as a steady starter at the other corner has been crucial. The pieces finally fit, and Dennard has been an underrated part of that.
Tom Brady was the NFL Most Valuable Player in 2007 and again in 2010. He won’t collect a third MVP trophy following this season — 2,000-yard rusher Adrian Peterson deserves that honor for carrying a mediocre Vikings team to the postseason — but that shouldn’t mean another brilliant season by No. 12 should be overlooked.
Brady finished the regular season with 4,827 passing yards, 34 touchdowns, just eight interceptions, and a 98.7 rating. The rating is the fourth-best of his career — after ‘07 and the past two seasons — and the numbers mirror his consistently brilliant performance all season.
He may not win the MVP, but is there any other player you’d rather have?