After 17 weeks, the 2017 regular season and the 2017 calendar year are now officially over. With the new year in hand, it’s time to take a look back at the New England Patriots year in review. Obviously, New England made the playoffs and the ultimate success of this team is still to be determined, but let’s analyze how the Patriots got to where they are now.
New England Patriots Year In Review
Stat Leaders – Passing
Tom Brady – 63.6% completion; 4,577 yards; 32 touchdowns; 8 interceptions
Father Time is undefeated, but don’t tell that to Tom Brady. Despite turning 40, Brady managed to put together another phenomenal 16 games. Brady’s 4,577 yards led the league, and he’s the odds on favorite to win the MVP award. Brady began the season with one of the best stretches of his storied career, throwing for 26 touchdowns to just three interceptions through the first 11 games. Brady single-handedly won a lot of those games, especially early on when the defense was still finding its identity.
However, Brady did slow down as the season wore on. In the final five games of the season, Brady threw just six touchdowns to go along with five interceptions. Not the worst numbers, but certainly lower than typical for Brady. Brady’s dip in production coincides with his name appearing on the injury report with an Achilles injury. Despite a few missed practices, Brady and the Patriots insist that the injury is minor and nothing to worry about. Look for Brady to return to his early season form for the playoffs, as the rest from the bye week should serve him well.
Stat Leaders – Rushing
Dion Lewis – 180 carries, 896 yards, six touchdowns; 32 receptions, 214 yards, three touchdowns
After starting the season as an afterthought, Dion Lewis has taken over as the lead back in New England. Lewis has dominated in both the passing and running game. Lewis shows incredible patience behind the line of scrimmage, waiting for blocks to open and attacking the gaps when they do. The third year Patriot also excels at picking up yards after contact, which isn’t something you’d expect out of a 5’8″, 195 pound back.
Stat Leaders – Receiving
Brandin Cooks – 65 receptions, 1,086 yards, seven touchdowns;
Rob Gronkowski – 69 receptions, 1,084 yards, eight touchdowns
Imagining what this offense would have looked like had New England not shipped over a first round pick for Cooks is hard to imagine. Cooks was clearly going to be leaned on heavily after losing Julian Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell in the pre-season. However, once Chris Hogan injured his shoulder in week eight and missed the majority of the season, Cooks was essentially the only outside receiver the Patriots had. While he can’t run every route, Cooks consistently brought big plays and reliability to a position decimated by injuries.
What can’t Gronkowski do? After missing the majority of 2016, he returned to form in 2017 and showed that he’s still the best tight end in the game. Gronkowski is too fast for linebackers, too big for defensive backs, and is downright uncoverable in the red zone. Rewatch the final drive against the Pittburgh Steelers to see just how dominant Gronkowski can be. Everything that can be said about him has already been said. He’s the best tight end in football, and it’s not even that close.
In terms of press, this would be a difficult decision. New England’s 2017 off-season featured several big moves not commonly associated with the franchise. Running backs Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee, along with cornerback Stephon Gilmore, were brought in during free agency. Bill Belichick traded away the teams first round pick for the speedy Brandin Cooks. However, the biggest signing in terms of impact came under the radar.
On September 12th, the Patriots extended the contract of linebacker Kyle Van Noy. Yet, there wasn’t that much attention given to this move. Van Noy had joined the team via trade last season, and was a solid, if unremarkable, player. Heading into the playoffs, Van Noy’s value couldn’t be any higher.
The entire defense has lived and died with Van Noy since linebacker Dont’a Hightower‘s season ending injury in week seven. While Van Noy may not be the most physically gifted player on the Patriots defense, the scheme requires Van Noy to play a lot of roles. When factoring in the lack of talent behind him on the depth chart, this defense would be in serious trouble without Van Noy’s presence.
In the five games after Hightower’s injury, the Patriots defense only allowed an average of 10 points a game. Despite missing their veteran, best player (Hightower), the Patriots defense was functioning very well. When Van Noy was forced out of weeks 14 and 15, that changed. In those two games, the Patriots gave up 27 points in back to back games, looking completely helpless against the run and against backs and tight ends.
Win of the Year
While leaving a great game like week three against the Houston Texans off the list is hard, there’s a clear answer here. The Patriots week 15, 27-24 win against the Steelers was easily the best win of the season, and could have been the game of the year.
In a possible AFC Championship Game preview, everything was on the line for these two teams. New England came into the game trailing the Steelers by one game in the standings. A win would mean they would own the tiebreaker, and a clear path to home field advantage. Pittsburgh could actually clinch home field advantage altogether with a win over New England.
The game was everything fans could have hoped for and more, and recapping it in its entirety has already been done. All there is to say is factoring in the high stakes, the great Brady to Gronkowski drive, and the wild, controversial finish, there’s no doubt this is the game of the year.
Upset of the Year
This is another easy choice. One week before the big game against Pittsburgh, New England faced the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football. The Patriots were riding an eight game winning streak, the Dolphins season looked lost, and New England beat the Dolphins by 18 points just two weeks earlier .
So, naturally, the Dolphins came out and spanked the Patriots. The final score read 27-20, but the Patriots were never even in it. With Gronkowski serving a one-game suspension, the offense looked anemic, and couldn’t convert a third down the whole game. Van Noy had to miss the game due to a calf injury. In turn, Jay Cutler and the Dolphins offense exploited the Patriots linebacker depth.
Blame it on whatever, this was not supposed to be the outcome. New England should have been the better team, but was instead embarrassed by their division rival.
Initially, this was where the Dolphins game was going to go. However, after thinking on it, the biggest loss for New England this year didn’t come in a meaningful game.
In week three of the preseason, Tom Brady targeted his favorite receiver, Edelman, on a simple crossing route. Edelman planted his foot to make a cut and immediately went down. The next day, it was announced that Edelman officially tore his ACL.
The impact of Edelman’s loss on this offense can’t be overstated. While Cooks, Gronkowski and even Danny Amendola have done a good job stepping up, there’s no way to replace Edelman. His toughness in unparalleled, as is his ability to run any route imaginable to create separation. However, his real value came from his otherworldly mind meld with Brady.
Ever since Edelman first emerged as a true receiving threat in 2013, Brady has always used Edelman as a security blanket to help move the offense. Quick passes to Edelman helped get the offense in a groove and back on track. This season, those types of plays haven’t been there. Instead of using the dink and dunk passes to get the offense back on track, Brady’s been throwing deep passes to Cooks, praying that they can pick up chunk yardage. It doesn’t always work out.
Ultimately, it’s been an exciting and enjoyable regular season for the Patriots. Fortunately, the ride doesn’t end here. New England will play the lowest ranked seed of the AFC playoff teams in Foxboro on Saturday the 13th. Patriots fans will be hoping that the three games following will force an update to the “Best Win” column.