Eleven superlatives from the Patriots’ 11-5 regular season . . .
■ Best reminder that he isn’t done yet: Tom Brady’s entire career is a tribute to wins being his favorite stat. Still, it should be acknowledged that he ended up with a fine statistical season for a 31-year-old, let alone a 41-year-old questing to play at a higher level than any quarterback that age ever has.
Brady completed 375 of 570 passes for 4,355 yards and 29 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions. There were occasional hiccups that made one wonder whether age or injury was catching up to him, especially late in the season.
But Brady ended with a classic performance in the win over the Jets, throwing four touchdown passes, playing with poise in the pocket, and showing preternatural ability to dodge the rush when necessary. It was the most encouraging sign yet that when the Patriots take the field in the playoffs, Brady will be at his best.
■ Best reminder of Sam Cunningham, Horace Ivory, and Andy Johnson: In 1978, the Patriots set an NFL record with 3,165 rushing yards as a team. Often running behind the ferocious left-side tandem of tackle Leon Gray and guard John Hannah, those Patriots had four players gain at least 500 yards on the ground (the aforementioned trio, plus quarterback Steve Grogan).
Forty years later, the Patriots paid homage to that team, even if it wasn’t deliberate, with a dominating running game in their Week 16 win over the Bills. Led by rookie Sony Michel (18 carries, 116 yards), the Patriots rambled for 273 rushing yards in a 24-12 victory.
■ Worst story line: The sadness of Josh Gordon’s departure after just 11 games as a Patriot due to further violation of the league’s substance abuse policy was a bummer, but not an entirely unpredictable one. It’s too bad they couldn’t help him as much as he helped them.
In terms of a pure football story line, the struggles of Rob Gronkowski — at least in comparison with his joyous throw-’em-out-of-the-club dominance for much of his career — has at times been hard to watch. Gronk ended up with decent numbers for a mortal tight end (47 catches, 682 yards, 3 TDs). We just didn’t expect reminders of his football mortality to come so soon.
■ Best Patriot first-round-pick running back from Georgia since Robert Edwards: Michel is also the only Patriots first-round-pick running back from Georgia since the talented, doomed Edwards 20 years ago, but don’t let the narrow category diminish his encouraging rookie season.
Michel started slow after being injured in camp and later missed three games with injury, but he still finished the season with 931 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns. There is room for improvement — he was a non-factor in the passing game and often seems a broken tackle away from gaining more chunks of yardage — but overall is was a fine rookie season.
■ Best offensive player: Brady was still very good and Julian Edelman looked like his old self after returning from a knee injury that cost him the ’17 season. But the easy choice for offensive MVP is James White. The versatile and trustworthy back gained 425 yards on the ground and another 751 in the air (on 87 receptions) while totaling 12 touchdowns.
The Patriots have utilized him less in recent weeks, hopefully for no other reason than to keep him fresh for the playoffs. He is essential and exceptional.
■ Best sign that Brady’s blind side would be protected: Remember when the biggest concern about this team (at least beyond the offseason melodrama) was replacing Nate Solder at left tackle? Niners refugee Trent Brown (a wee fella at 6 feet 8 inches and 369 pounds) assuaged those concerns early. In the season opener, he made Texans star Jadeveon Clowney (6-5, 270) look like a kid trying to beat his Pop Warner coach in a practice drill.
■ Best Swiss Army knife (offense): The first clue that the Patriots viewed Cordarrelle Patterson as something more than a conventional wide receiver came during the opener against the Texans when, in the second quarter, he took a handoff and ran 10 yards on a play immediately following a fake reverse.
Patterson’s speed and surprising toughness made him a versatile piece for the offense. He finished the season with 228 rushing yards and another 247 via the air, and is always dangerous as a return man.
■ Best example of doing your job when the chance comes: Phillip Dorsett is often an afterthought in the offense, but get this: Brady targeted him 16 times in the last 12 games; Dorsett caught all 16 passes. The last incompletion when Dorsett was the target came in Week 4 against the Dolphins.
■ Worst loss to a familiar face: Gotta be a tie here, right? The Patriots got thumped by Matt Patricia’s Lions in Week 3, 26-10, then walloped by Mike Vrabel’s Titans in Week 10, 34-10. The loss to the Lions, who finished 6-10, was more stunning in retrospect. It’s also a reminder of one of the stranger stats from this season: The Patriots lost five games to teams that missed the playoffs, but went 4-0 against playoff teams.
■ Best defensive player: Among those worthy of honorable mention are Trey Flowers (career-high 7.5 sacks, and that doesn’t tell the tale of his habitual disruption) and Kyle Van Noy (team-high 92 tackles), while J.C. Jackson deserves a nod for his late-season emergence as the Patriots’ best rookie free-agent cornerback since . . . well, since Malcolm Butler four years ago.
But the obvious choice is Pro Bowl-bound cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who seems as technically sound as a cornerback could be. He finished with 2 interceptions and 20 passes defensed while playing one of the toughest positions in sports with poise and grace.
■ Best statistical reminder that this Patriots run is just plain ridiculous: Actually, one stat probably doesn’t do the trick. It’s the stats and achievements in accumulation that leave the mind boggled about how long the Patriots have done this.
Consider: They have won at least 10 games for 16 straight seasons. They have won the AFC East for 10 straight seasons. They have had a first-round bye for nine straight seasons. With one playoff win, they will reach the AFC Championship game for an eighth straight year. And with a win in the AFC Championship, they would reach their ninth Super Bowl and their third straight.
Sure, this felt like an uneven regular season, and it was — but only by the Patriots’ incredibly high standards.