Superlatives: Patriots 2013 season
If you look at the season as a whole, this one may not be so easy. The Patriots seemed to find themselves in the middle of tight contests on a weekly basis. But this one's a breeze: It's the Broncos. The only Patriots loss that really never seemed to be within reach was the AFC Championship Game in Denver.
Remember when the Divisional Round game against the Colts was close? It was until LeGarrette Blount was sprung for 73-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. The play featured all that was good in the Patriots run-based offense at the end of the season. Michael Hoomanawanui sealed off Indianapolis defensive end Robert Mathis. Logan Mankins pulled to take out another Colt. Blount broke a tackle, and he was gone. It was hard-nosed and well-executed, a thing of beauty for ground-and-pound enthusiasts.
PLAY THEY'D MOST LIKE TO HAVE BACK
We're going back to Week 15 in Miami for this one. Dolphins ball on their own 44-yard line. It's fourth-and-five with the Patriots leading 20-17 and 2:42 left. Ryan Tannehill takes a shotgun snap, double-clutches, and throws a screen pass to tight end Charles Clay who maneuvers through four Patriots defenders to pick up an improbable first down. About a minute later, Tannehill throws a go-ahead touchdown pass and the Patriots lose, 24-20. Looking back, a stop on fourth down, and a win, would have given the Patriots homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Who knows how the AFC Championship plays out if it's in Foxboro.
MOST IMPROVED FROM LAST SEASON
Is there anyone else? Maybe we're cheating because he was so banged up in 2012, but 2013 was the year of the Minitron. Julian Edelman came away with over 100 catches and 1,000 receiving yards for the first time in his career and was Tom Brady's only reliable weapon in the passing game all season. Good timing on his part: He's set to become a free agent.
MOST IMPROVED IN-SEASON
Dont'a Hightower seemed to be New England's whipping boy on the defensive side of the ball for a good chunk of the season. When Jerod Mayo went out, he was the one who inherited the green dot, but he struggled from the jump. He seemed seemed to be slow to react in the passing game and second-guess himself in the run game. He admitted later in the year he tried to do too much to make up for Mayo's loss. However, by season's end, with both Mayo and Brandon Spikes sidelined, he became one of the team's best run stuffers and he looked much more comfortable in space, even picking off an Andrew Luck pass in New England's Divisional Round win over the Colts.
MOST DAMAGING INJURY
With Rob Gronkowski in the lineup, the Patriots offense was tops in the league. After he was torpedoed by Browns safety TJ Ward in Week 14, the Patriots had to use smoke and mirrors to make it all the way to the AFC title game. While other injuries were significant -- Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo among them -- Gronk's did the most damage to their championship hopes.
All kinds of candidates for this one. Logan Ryan did a nice job when called upon. Michael Hoomanawanui saw plenty of time in different spots -- blocking tight end, fullback, receiver. Chris Jones and Joe Vellano had their moments early in the year, while Sealver Siliga came on strong late. Heck, even Austin Collie had a few big catches when he was pressed into action. But Jamie Collins has to get the nod here. It wasn't until late in the season that we really got to see what he was capable of as a linebacker -- he was more of a special teamer, and a good one, before that. But when he got his chance, he impressed. Had it not been for injuries to Mayo and Spikes, we may still be wondering what he was capable of as a defensive player as he makes his way into his sophomore season.
There were bunches of them, both from Stephen Gostkowski and rookie punter Ryan Allen. Gostkowski, a Pro Bowler, had arguably the best season of any kicker in the league, though he wasn't named All Pro. His biggest kick? The one that traveled just 10 yards. On the ground. His onside dribble against the Browns was recovered by New England and allowed the Patriots to come back and win their Week 14 matchup, 27-26.
Anytime Hulk Hogan comes through with a viral video promoting the Patriots and shouting out tight end Matthew Mulligan by name, it's going to win the "Best Cameo" category. Them's the rules, brother.
"I was asked about the hit on [Aqib] Talib and I feel badly for Aqib the way that play turned out. I went back and watched it, which I didn’t have a chance to do yesterday. I think it was a deliberate play by the receiver to take out Aqib; no attempt to get open. I’ll let the league handle the discipline on that play; it’s not for me to decide, but it’s one of the worst plays I’ve seen. That’s all I’m going to say about that." -- Bill Belichick