It would be remiss of us to allow the New England Patriots regular season to end and not give the team and its players proper credit for an astounding campaign, going 12-4 and somehow churning out only four Pro Bowl players.
We have to make up for the difference somehow. So we take this superlative approach, dishing out end of season awards that are not your garden variety. But while doing so, we also take into consideration the moments of the 2013 season in which we’ll cling to long after the 2014 postseason is done. And, of course, the moments that we will not be able to forget but should be directly filed into our memory trash bins.
Take a look.
The X-factor award: Stephen Gostkowski
Despite constantly being overlooked, including being snubbed as a Pro Bowl selection, Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski has had a tremendous year in which he scored an NFL high and franchise record in points (158), a career high in field goals made (38), and went 2 for 2 on game-winning field goals, not including the two 50+ makes he had against the Houston Texans in the fourth quarter to help secure a 34-31 win. When the Patriots needed him, he was more than reliable, finishing the season 38 of 41. Add in a once-in-a-lifetime onside kick recovery against the Cleveland Browns and you could almost say Gostkowski is the Patriots’ not-so-secret weapon.
Best individual performance: Shane Vereen
Go back all the way to Week 1 to revel in running back Shane Vereen’s monster performance against the Buffalo Bills. After Stevan Ridley (9 carries, 46 yards) and LeGarrette Blount (7 carries, 15 yards) proved ineffective in the running game, Vereen took over and carried the rock 14 times for 101 yards. But he was also a factor in the passing game, catching seven passes for 58 yards. The caveat here is that he did all of this with a broken wrist, an injury he suffered in the first half and that would keep him out of the Patriots’ lineup again until Week 11. It was an outstanding individual effort that showed his true potential for the team. Sure, Blount’s 334 all-purpose yards in Week 17 was great, but he wasn’t fighting off an injury. There was also Tom Brady’s 432-yard and 4-touchdown effort against the Pittsburgh Steelers to consider. But somehow, fighting through pain deserves some extra recognition.
Lineman of the year: Nate Solder
The Patriots have been fortunate to have a core group of players get a majority of the team’s snaps on the offensive line, including left tackle Nate Solder, who missed two games after suffering concussions two weeks in a row. But despite missing these two games, he still ranks fifth in snaps on the team and proved to be a tremendous pass blocker during the season. He allowed 10 sacks, two quarterback hits, and 23 hurries while on 647 quarterback drop backs, according to the statistical website ProFootballFocus.com. All while committing only four penalties on the season. While Logan Mankins continues to be the toughest man in the trenches for the Patriots, earning another Pro Bowl nod, this has been a wildly successful year for the third-year tackle.
Defensive MVP: Aqib Talib
Confident, brash even, and a smack talker with the talent to back it up, Aqib Talib has proved his worth ten-fold this season, earning his first Pro Bowl nod in the process. He had 41 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 13 passes defensed as the Patriots’ top cornerback, facing off with the top wide receiver or tight end of each team. But what’s more, his impact was always seemingly timely, getting a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions against the New York Jets or batting down a pass in the end zone against the Atlanta Falcons to seal a win. That early year success made teams reluctant to test his skills as the year winded down.
Best comeback victory: Cleveland Browns
Fighting the elements, and quite possibly considering their pride, the Patriots battled back from a 24-0 halftime deficit to beat the Denver Broncos 34-31 in overtime. It was freezing cold, with the wind chill dropping the temperatures into single digits. Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno ran for 224 yards. And all seemed lost until the Patriots came out firing in the second half, weather be damned. But that doesn’t even rank when you consider the Patriots’ stunning come-from-behind victory against the Cleveland Browns. With just 2:39 left in the fourth quarter, and the Patriots down 26-14, Tom Brady led the Patriots on two scoring drives, helped in part by an onside kick from Stephen Gostkowski which was recovered by Kyle Arrington. Brady threw touchdown passes to Julian Edelman with 1:01 left and Danny Amendola with 31 seconds left to lift the Patriots over the Browns, 27-26. The rarity of the onside kick recovery, given the gravity of the moment, helped bests the team’s comeback wins against the Broncos, the New Orleans Saints, and Houston Texans.
Special teams stud: Matthew Slater/Nate Ebner
Matthew Slater is a well respected veteran now in the NFL, accounting for 13 special teams tackles in 12 games this season to lead the Patriots. He was voted to his third consecutive Pro Bowl because of his disruptive presence on the field, especially on the punt team. Not too far behind Slater among the Patriots’ special teams core players is Nate Ebner, who accounted for 11 special teams tackles in 12 games and recovered two fumbles this season, including a fumbled punt in overtime against the Denver Broncos. Both have had a phenomenal year for the Patriots in the kicking game.
Rookie of the year: Logan Ryan
You might even say Logan Ryan wins the first-annual Rutgers Alumnus award for a professional athlete on the Patriots because he certainly beat out former college teammate Duron Harmon for this honor. Despite a rough training camp and some setbacks early this season, Ryan finished with a team-high five interceptions and developed well enough to start at cornerback for the Patriots with Aflonzo Dennard out with injury. He added two sacks and allowed only three touchdowns this season. He came up huge against the Baltimore Ravens with two interceptions, wresting this award away from Harmon, who was more consistent throughout the season but failed to make the big play.
Best Patriots transaction: Trading for LeGarrette Blount
On draft day, the Patriots decided to jettison running back Jeff Demps when he couldn’t commit to playing strictly football. They sent Demps and a 2013 seventh round draft pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for running back LeGarrette Blount. With 772 yards rushing, seven touchdowns, and a franchise record 334 all-purpose yards against the Buffalo Bills in Week 17, Blount turned out to be one of the Patriots’ bright spots down the road after Stevan Ridley fell out of favor. His performance against the Bills, which included 189 yards rushing and two touchdowns, proved that he could carry the mantle as the team’s featured back. And Demps is out of the league.
Worst Patriots transaction: Trading for Isaac Sopoaga
After watching Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly go down to season-ending injuries, the Patriots decided that they needed to make a move to shore up their defensive line with a veteran presence. They found a willing partner with the Philadelphia Eagles, who sent 10-year pro Isaac Sopoaga and a 2014 sixth-round pick to the Patriots for a 2014 fifth rounder. The defensive tackle has been quite a dud, arriving in Week 9 and accounting for one solo tackle since then and one sack. He was a healthy scratch in Weeks 16 and 17 with the Patriots opting to use a trio of rookies, Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones, and Joe Vellano.
Best free agent pickup: Chris Jones
Chris Jones was drafted by the Houston Texans in the sixth round and waived out of training camp. He was claimed off waivers by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before he made a home in New England, claimed off waivers again. He ended up playing 792 of the team’s defensive snaps, good for eighth most on the team, and finished with 54 tackles and six sacks, second in sacks among all rookies. That’s pretty good for a September pickup.
Patriots hater of the year: Antonio Smith
After Houston lost its 10th game in a row, this time after giving up a 10-point lead at half, Texans defensive end Antonio Smith accused the Patriots of spying following their 34-31 victory at Reliant Stadium.
“Either teams are spying on us or scouting us . . . I don’t know what it is,” Smith said. “We had some ways that we were going to play this week that just got put in this week, and it was just miraculous that they changed up some things that they did on offense and keyed on what we put in this week to stop what they were doing.
“It was things that they had never done before out here. It just seems miraculous to me.’’
In-game adjustments were miraculous to him? And the never-ending Patriots hate continues to flow.
Worst penalty: The picked-up flag in Carolina
We’re sure referee Clete Blakeman and his crew would love to go back and re-do Week 11 all over again because it was quite frankly the worst officiating we’ve seen all season. With three seconds left in the fourth quarter and the Patriots with the ball at the Carolina 25 — down by four points — tight end Rob Gronkowski cut over the middle of the field and into the end zone with Tom Brady eyeing a possible go-ahead touchdown as time expired. But Gronkowski was manhandled by linebacker Luke Kuechly. Back judge Terrence Miles initially threw a flag, which would have given the Patriots a chance to attempt another play. But after a discussion on the field, the officials decided to pick it up, explaining that the ball was uncatchable. The officials never consider defensive holding.
The Wes Welker replacement award: Julian Edelman
Danny Amendola tried but even Wes Welker had troubles going up head to head against Julian Edelman. The fifth year wide receiver finally had his breakout season, catching 105 passes for 1,056 yards. He led the team in targets with 151, almost double what Amendola received (83) and more than twice as Aaron Dobson (74), the team’s third leading receiver. Playing in all 16 games obviously aided Edelman, who was able to stay on the field when Amendola, Dobson, and Kenbrell Thompkins could not. His chemistry with Tom Brady was just a plus.
Mr. Disappointment: Stevan Ridley
With four fumbles lost, including three in three straight games, Stevan Ridley hit the pine hard in 2013. The talented running back who ran for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012, finished with only 773 and 7 TDs this year after his role diminished due to the fumbles. He took a backseat to LeGarrette Blount in the team’s final games. With more than 100 carries less this season and seemingly a turnover waiting to happen, he was a huge disappointment for the Patriots.
The Iron Man award: Chandler Jones/Ryan Wendell
For playing the most snaps on offense and defense for the entire season, center Ryan Wendell and defensive end Chandler Jones deserve your praise. Wendell played all 1,218 offensive snaps. Only Tom Brady was able to do all 1,218 on offense as well. And Jones played 1,142 defensive snaps, close to 100 percent of the team’s total, subbing out for minor injuries only to return a few plays or series later.
Most outstanding play: Marquice Cole’s interception
Following a tipped pass from Patriots safety Devin McCourty, defensive back Marquice Cole was able to tip-toe the sideline and come up with a highlight reel interception against the Miami Dolphins in Week 6. It was a heady play that earned much praise from Patriots coach Bill Belichick at the time. Other outstanding plays considered were Michael Hoomanawanui’s one-handed touchdown reception and Kenbrell Thompkins’ game-winning touchdown catch against the New Orleans Saints.