Does it get any better than 2017? Pats aim to find out
It was a game for the ages, yes. But if you lived for a good "best ever" back-and-forth at the bar, Super Bowl LI was . . . problematic. What Tom Brady did in helping to author his team's 25-point comeback, dwarfing the record 10-point championship comeback he orchestrated two years prior, was cement himself as the greatest ever to play his position. After an eight-play, 75-yard overtime drive, capped by James White's game-winner, Brady became the game's winningest quarterback and Bill Belichick became its winningest head coach. Five rings each with the Patriots. It was the unfathomable end to a journey that began with players running hills beyond their training camp practice fields, that continued without Brady for four weeks, and that dragged on with Nas' "Hate Me Now" occasionally blaring at Gillette Stadium -- a nod to the reality that the league (and in all likelihood most of the rest of the country) wanted to see the Patriots fail. With a juggling catch, a strip-sack, and a steady drip of pinpoint passes, Brady's "hero's journey" was complete when he crumpled to the NRG Stadium turf, emotionally spent. The best? There really was no argument.
Super Bowl 51 was clearly the moment of 2017 for the Patriots, but click through for a quick-hitting recap of all the team's biggest moments over the course of the last calendar year.
JANUARY 14: NEON DION
On a night when one of the biggest stars in Patriots history admitted that he was thinking about calling it quits, one of its smallest ran wild. Dion Lewis racked up three touchdowns against Vince Wilfork and the Texans in the Divisional Round on Jan. 14, and in the process he did something that no one has ever done in a playoff game in the Super Bowl Era: He caught a touchdown pass, returned a kick for a touchdown, and ran for a score. It wasn't all good for Lewis, who fumbled a kick return in the second quarter, and coughed up a hand-off in the fourth. Plus, the Patriots were helped by interceptions from each one of their three Rutgers defensive backs. But Lewis was the star on a night when Tom Brady and the passing game were off. Not bad for a player who less than two months prior came back from a patella fracture that followed his 2015 ACL repair.
JANUARY 22: BRADY CARVES UP STEELERS . . . AGAIN
After the Texans practically drew up the blueprint to stop Tom Brady, the Steelers had no issue doing what they always do against the quarterback who had proven many times previously he could manipulate their zone coverages. Of course Brady threw for 384 yards and three scores on Jan. 22 -- bringing his career numbers against Pittsburgh to 29 touchdowns and three interceptions -- and advanced to his seventh Super Bowl. The highlight: a flea-flicker touchdown to Chris Hogan, who glided through the secondary without a care. Give the Steelers some credit, now. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler said they'd need to make some changes to beat Brady, but the first public admission of that fact didn't come until the spring, and even then they couldn't stick with the newer coverages they tried.
FEBRUARY 5: THE STRIP SACK
Walking through the tunnel from their locker room to their after-party, Patriots players deliriously recounted the myriad game-changing moments one after the next, like kids leaving a movie and remembering their favorite parts. There was what Duron Harmon told players at halftime. There was Julian Edelman's catch and James White's walk-off plunge. But they agreed unanimously on the play that changed everything: Dont'a Hightower's strip-sack. Blowing by an unsuspecting Devonta Freeman, in pass-protection with Tevin Coleman out injured, the defensive captain drilled Matt Ryan, Alan Branch recovered the fumble, and suddenly the Falcons were scrambling. For the second time in three years, Hightower had authored one of the biggest defensive stops in the Super Bowl. Without him, Brady and Belichick might still be sitting on three rings instead of a fist-full.
MARCH 10: TURNING THE CORNER
The Patriots began an aggressive offseason by making one of the most aggressive free-agent signings in team history. In a throwback move to when Bill Belichick brought linebacker Adalius Thomas aboard before the 2007 season, he and Nick Caserio pursued and secured a commitment from big-ticket corner Stephon Gilmore. The fast-and-physical former top-10 pick was paid like one of the best corners in football, and his acquisition immediately threw Macolm Butler's future into doubt. The Patriots and Butler had been unable to come to a long-term agreement, and with Gilmore, New England suddenly had another No. 1 corner on its books at big money for years to come. Butler's standing with the team only came under further scrutiny days later when he was rumored to be part of a trade that would land Tom Brady the best deep receiver he's had at his disposal since Randy Moss . . .
MARCH 11: PATS COOK UP A DEAL
Were the Patriots "all in" on 2017? "Loading up" seemed more apt. Bill Belichick wouldn't risk it all to make a run during Tom Brady's 40-year-old season. But he was ready to invest heavily in the short-term, and the Brandin Cooks trade proved it. Instead of using the No. 32 overall pick one year after the NFL yanked their first-rounder for Deflategate, the Patriots sent it to New Orleans for the 23-year-old burner. (There were rumblings that the Patriots would be able to get the pick back in a trade that sent Malcolm Butler to New Orleans, but Butler was not under contract and the Patriots weren't permitted to discuss him in a deal, never mind actually include him in one.) Cooks was a young down-the-field threat who could stretch maddening defensive schemes that muddled the middle of the field, as the Texans and Falcons did in the postseason. But by sending away their top pick for a player with just one year and an option remaining on his rookie deal, the Patriots signaled they were willing to punt on the 2017 draft. They moved their second-rounder to acquire Kony Ealy and a third-rounder. They traded their fourth for Dwayne Allen and a sixth. One fifth-rounder went to Buffalo to sign restricted free agent Mike Gillislee and another went to Kansas City in a trade for James O'Shaughnessy. Only four rookies were selected, and only three of those are still with the team.
AUGUST 25: THE FIRST BIG LOSS
There aren't haven't been many true "oh-bleep" kinds of moments for the Patriots during Bill Belichick and Tom Brady's reign. This was one. Early on in a preseason game with the Lions, Edelman made what he admitted later was an over-aggressive jump-cut and crumpled to the turf. He limped off the field, met with Patriots medical staff and was later carted off. The word came down soon after the game was over: Torn ACL. Lost for the season was not only Brady's most trusted offensive weapon, but an emotional leader who gave the offense an edge. Without him, the Patriots would have to take a many-hands-make-light-work approach. Lean more heavily on Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan. Hope Rob Gronkowski remains in one piece. Get contributions from a deep running-back group. In the two instances that the Patriots have been forced to take the field without both Edelman and Gronkowski in 2017, it hasn't been pretty. But they've still maintained their place at the top of the league among the most efficient offenses in football. Clearly, they can get by without Edelman. But his absence makes their margin for error much, much thinner.
OCTOBER 22: THE SECOND BIG LOSS
The play was relatively innocuous. With three minutes left in a 20-0 blowout, Dont'a Hightower attempted a tackle in the middle of the field on Falcons running back Devonta Freeman, the same player he burned for his signature Super Bowl moment earlier in the year. But between the angle at which Hightower lunged at Freeman and the power with which Freeman cut back across the field, the linebacker's pectoral muscle couldn't withstand it. Hightower remained in the game briefly but that was the last time he'd be seen in pads in 2017. The Patriots front-seven, already thin, was suddenly without its best player. Their pass-rush, their run defense, their communication, their leadership . . . all took a hit with Hightower out. Kyle Van Noy performed admirably as a versatile linebacker-slash-end in Hightower's absence, and the defense has held things together by locking down opponents in the red zone (sixth in points allowed). But with two games left in the regular season the Patriots are 29th in yards allowed, 25th in pass yards allowed per attempt and last in rush yards per attempt. Having Hightower (and in particular his knack for the big play) would've gone a long way in providing a sense of security for Matt Patricia and Bill Belichick's defense as it readies for the postseason.
OCTOBER 31: OH, G.!
The Patriots had what Bill Belichick called "the best quarterback situation in the league" for multiple seasons, but he insisted it was "just not sustainable." The team had a 40-year-old quarterback playing like the most valuable player in the game. It had a 26-year-old quarterback who wanted to play, was good enough to play, and was not interested in a bridge contract to remain a backup. The Patriots technically could have forced the franchise tag on Garoppolo for 2018, but that wasn't deemed a realistic option. When it became clear the Patriots couldn't retain Garoppolo for a few extra years to be Tom Brady's successor, they pulled the ripcord and tried to get something for him at the trade deadline before he walked away as a free agent. As much as it pained Belichick -- not to mention Josh McDaniels and the rest of the staff that helped develop Garoppolo into a legitimate franchise quarterback -- he felt like his hands were tied. Brady simply outlasted the timeline the Patriots had in mind when they drafted Garoppolo in 2014. Now the search for the next quarterback in New England begins again while the football world watches Garoppolo light things up in San Francisco and wonders how the Niners swiped him for only a second-round pick.
DECEMBER 17: TAKING THE POLE POSITION
Arguably the greatest regular-season game in franchise history, and one of the rare instances when a game meets and exceeds the hype it stirred, the Dec. 17 meeting between the Steelers and Patriots had it all. Two teams vying for home-field advantage in the playoffs. Wild swings in momentum in the final minutes. Controversy over the catch rule. Hall-of-Fame players making critical plays (and inexplicable gaffes) with only seconds left. The result was finger-pointing in Pittsburgh, and the Patriots back in the top spot in the AFC.