— The Sports Xchange —
Though preseason predictions of a possible undefeated campaign blew up with an opening night loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the defending champion Patriots won 13 games to capture the AFC East title, secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC and represent the conference yet again in the Super Bowl, although they lost to the Eagles.
The Patriots found a way to deal with injuries and personnel limitations on the defensive front seven.
Offensively, quarterback Tom Brady defied his age again to lead the NFL’s No. 1 offense and No. 2 passing attack. He leaned heavily on All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Brandin Cooks, both of whom topped 1,000 yards and totaled 15 touchdowns. The running game struggled early in the year as Mike Gillislee failed to find much success, but took off when Dion Lewis took over on the way to 896 yards and an impressive 5-yard average to balance out the offense over the second half.
Defensively, free-agent addition Stephon Gilmore and the entire secondary struggled in the first month. Though the defense finished ranked 29th in the league, including the No. 30 pass defense, the unit found a way to go from dead last in points allowed in September to finish No. 5.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: It had a different look without Julian Edelman, including more downfield throws to trade addition Brandin Cooks, but the Tom Brady-led passing attack was once again among the most potent in the game. The unit overcame early-season pass protection problems and a rare five-game interception streak by Brady late in the season to put up consistent production to key the winning ways in New England. Cooks and Rob Gronkowski both topped 1,000 yards to lead the way for a deep group that had seven guys haul in 30 or more receptions.
Right, wrong or otherwise: In a surprising twist offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels returned to the Patriots after reneging on an agreement to become head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. Speculation is that he was lured back by talk of becoming heir apparent to coach Bill Belichick.
WHAT WENT WRONG: Though Matt Patricia’s coaching found a way to build the No. 5 defense against scoring, including a stretch of eight straight wins holding opponents to 17 points or fewer, a variety of issues popped up throughout the year. Early on there were “communication” problems in the secondary that led to big plays allowed and two losses in the first four weeks. The lack of a consistent pass rush and a run defense that allowed opponents to average 4.7 yards per carry didn’t help. But in the end the bend-but-don’t-break unit was never the fatal flaw it looked to be early on although allowing 41 points in the Super Bowl loss was deflating.
Then there was the mystery about former Super Bowl star Malcolm Butler being benched for SB LII except for one special teams play, despite the defense’s inability to stop the Eagles.