Same time next year for New England Patriots
The 2012 season came to a shocking end for the New England Patriots with the loss in the AFC Championship game at home to the Baltimore Ravens. For Bill Belichick & Co. the bar is set astronomically high. Anything less than playing and winning the final game on the NFL calendar is deemed as a failure.
Much like after the loss in Super Bowl 46 the immediate future looks pretty damn good for the Patriots. Yes it’s a huge disappointment that New England was unable to replicate what happened last year but NFL fans should not be surprised at all when they see the Patriots playing in February 2014.
The Gronk Factor
For the second post-season in a row the Patriots had to deal with a far less than healthy Rob Gronkowski, a player who could end up the best tight end of all time. After trying to come back from a broken arm Gronkowski freakishly broke another bone in the same arm early in the AFC Championship game. Tight End Aaron Hernandez is solid but a healthy Gronk is great and without him as a weapon for Brady New England is forced to go smaller in their receiver corps. The good news about Gronk’s two arm injuries is that he’s got nine months to heal and the ankle injury that limited him in Super Bowl 46 is way behind him. Gronkowski should have another record-breaking season in 2013…if he can stay healthy.
Tom Brady is still Tom Brady
The Baltimore Ravens are one of the best defenses of the modern era and even a great quarterback like Tom Brady will struggle against them and he did, but Brady is still one of the best QBs in the NFL and the best win games. In order to make Brady even better for next season and beyond New England has to establish a consistently productive running game and capitalize on play-action. From a statistical standpoint Brady showed no signs of decline in 2012 and his numbers should at least be at the same level next season.
Tom Brady might be an elder statesman of the league but his defensive is one of the youngest around. What made the Patriots so successful at the turn of the millennium was their tough & wise veteran defense. Tedy Bruschi & Rodney Harrison surely aren’t “walking through that door” but led by veteran nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who is only improving with age, New England’s defense is young and talented. From the D-line to the D-backs the Patriots are loaded with young talent. Defensive lineman Kyle Love & Brandon Deaderick stepped up their game in 2012 proving they can complement and spell Vince Wilfork during the course of a game. First round draft pick defensive end Chandler Jones showed early on that when healthy he can be a force in the pass rush. If New England can sign Aqib Talib it sets up an successful year of improvement for young bucks like Alfonzo Dennard & Tavon Wilson. The linebacking core of Spike, Mayo, and Hightower has the potential to be the best in the NFL. Throw in DE/LB Rob Ninkovich, defensive ends Justin Francis & Trevor Scott and top CFL rookie Armand Armstead and the Patriots could be back in 2003-04 form.
The way the Patriots handled last years draft(using both 1st round picks) and the signing of top wide receiver free agent Brandon Lloyd are clear signs that New England is doing everything they can to win while Brady is still under center. They’re looking for players who can contribute now and what better place to find guys like that than in free agency. The big question is what will happen in with Wes Welker. It’s likely they’ll place the franchise tag on him again. They’ve got close to $20 million to play with and Welker would franchise at about $12 million. If they opt to not go the Welker way they could look at guys like Dwayne Bowe or Brian Hartline on 3 or 4 year deals. With Gronkowski back healthy, Aaron Hernandez could fill the slot position if Welker isn’t in Foxboro for the 2013 season. On the defensive side Talib is the top priority for New England to re-sign but if he opts to go elsewhere for more money there are other options. Brent Grimes’ price will come down after a season ending injury and Belichick could pluck safety William Moore out of Atlanta as well. If future Hall-of-Famer Ed Reed wants more than 1 Super Bowl ring there’s a lot of talk that he’ll seek it with a flying Elvis on his helmet instead of a Raven.
The 2013 schedule has New England playing the NFC South and the AFC North plus games against Houston & Denver. With Ray Lewis retiring and Ed Reed almost certain to not be in Baltimore the Ravens could be a shell of themselves on defense and the offense is yet to prove it can carry the team throughout an entire season. The Steelers are a team in flux and although improving the Bengals are still two or three seasons away from being a true AFC threat. The NFC South presents some intriguing match-ups for the Patriots next season. The Falcons are the biggest threat but lapse defensively and lose focus against better teams. The Panthers and Tampa Bay are young teams still finding their way led by young quarterbacks, but the Saints are a team to watch in 2013. Will they bounce back after a season riddled with bounty-gate suspensions or have they completely lost their way? New England has shown they can handle the Texans and getting a year older Peyton Manning at home is a big plus. The real saving grace of the Patriots’ 2013 season is that they’re still in the AFC East and that’s pretty much another guaranteed six wins.
The road to Super Bowl 48 is a long and surely unpredictable one but for the New England Patriots they seem to be traveling in the right lane to get there.
Chris Timoney is an NFL writer for TPF and can be contacted at CTimoney@ThePenaltyFlagBlog.com.