Some faces and names were unfamiliar. The stats weren’t quite as pretty. And the execution wasn’t nearly as crisp.
Yet despite all of the injuries and all of the turnover in personnel on offense, the results were exactly the same as last year: A 12-4 record and the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs for the Patriots.
“Nobody gave them anything,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of his players. “This team earned it, I’m happy for them. But at the same time, this isn’t our only goal for the season.
“We’re excited to be 12-4 and moving into the playoffs. We still have a lot of work to do.”
The Patriots’ real season starts a week from Saturday in the divisional round. But with them on a bye this weekend, let’s take a quick look at the roster, how each unit performed this season, and where they stand entering the playoffs:
Grade: A minus
Tom Brady’s completion percentage (60.5) was his lowest since 2003, and the second-lowest of his career. His 25 touchdown passes (down from 34 last year) were his fewest in a full season since 2006. His passer rating (87.9) also was his lowest since 2003, and his 49 passes of 20-plus yards were his fewest in five seasons.
Yet Brady was a rock star in the second half of the season, leading the Patriots to a 6-2 finish down the stretch with several memorable comebacks. He cracked 300 yards five times in eight games (with two 400-yard performances) and completed 65.1 percent of passes.
But the most important stat for Brady is 5, as in the number of game-winning drives he led in the fourth quarter and overtime. He also had the Patriots in position to win in the last minute against Miami and Carolina.
Grade: B minus
This was a unit that returned all five starters but didn’t quite measure up to expectations. Brady’s sacks rose from 27 to 40 this year, tied for ninth-most in the NFL. Nate Solder struggled with speed rushers, and the interior of Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, and Dan Connolly allowed significantly more sacks (19 to 11) and quarterback pressures (73 to 46) than last year.
The Patriots may look to replace either Wendell or Connolly next year, but Mankins’s struggles were surprising: His sack total rose from 2 to 10, and pressures from 11 to 21.
The unit performed better in run blocking, particularly Mankins, who did an excellent job as a pulling guard. The Patriots averaged 4.4 yards per carry (ninth-best) and their 19 rushing touchdowns were second-most.
Stevan Ridley took a step back with his four fumbles, tied for third-most among non-quarterbacks. He regressed to 773 yards and seven touchdowns, though his 4.3-yard average was still solid and he has been running well of late.
But LeGarrette Blount picked up the slack, especially in the second half of the season. He finished with 772 yards and seven touchdowns, plus an impressive 5.0-yard average. He also finished seventh among running backs by averaging 2.7 yards after contact.
Shane Vereen proved a worthy successor to Danny Woodhead as the pass-catching back, catching 47 passes for 427 yards and three touchdowns despite missing eight games with a broken wrist. Brandon Bolden filled in admirably with 21 catches for 152 yards but wasn’t nearly as explosive as Vereen.
The biggest positive is that all four running backs played between 22 and 27 percent of the snaps this year, giving the Patriots four sets of fresh legs for the playoffs.
Grade: C plus
Julian Edelman’s fantastic season (105 catches, 1,056 yards, six touchdowns) saved this group, which struggled with injuries and consistency. Edelman did have 298 fewer yards than Wes Welker did last year, but overall he finished fourth in the NFL in receptions, fifth with 30 third-down receptions, added four 100-yard games, and his 53 catches were the most in the NFL over the final six games.
None of the other receivers came close to Brandon Lloyd’s 74 catches or 911 yards from last year, but the production was spread out more evenly. Danny Amendola was a bit of a disappointment, finishing with 54 catches, 633 yards, and two touchdowns while missing four games with a groin injury, but did have three 100-yard games.
Aaron Dobson (37 catches, 519 yards, four touchdowns) and Kenbrell Thompkins (32 catches, 466 yards, four touchdowns) performed as well as could be expected as rookies.
Grade: A minus
This grade is based on two factors: How well Rob Gronkowski played in his seven-game stint, and how well blocking tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan performed, given expectations.
It took Gronk seven games to finally get back on the field, but he was an animal in his brief time before his knee injury, catching 39 passes for 592 yards and four touchdowns and providing solid run blocking. Had Gronk stayed healthy, the Patriots would be the clear favorites to reach the Super Bowl.
Hoomanawanui chipped in with 12 catches, 136 yards, and an unbelievable one-handed touchdown catch against Miami, while playing 57.5 percent of snaps to trigger a $370,000 incentive in his contract. Mulligan was signed off the street as a precaution early in the season, and ended up playing 24.1 percent of snaps and catching a touchdown against Atlanta.
Defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich were the backbone of the defense, leading the Patriots in snaps played (98 percent for Jones, 95.5 percent for Ninkovich). Jones took a big step forward in Year 2, compiling 11½ sacks, a forced fumble, and 79 tackles, though he may have hit a wall at the end of the season with one sack in his final five games. Ninkovich had eight sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and was excellent against the run.
The defensive tackle position became a weak spot when Vince Wilfork went down in Week 4 and Tommy Kelly in Week 5. The most consistent performer was rookie Chris Jones, who was claimed off waivers at the beginning of the season and finished with six sacks and 54 tackles, playing in 67.9 percent of snaps to lead the way.
Undrafted rookie Joe Vellano eventually gave way to veteran Isaac Sopoaga, who then gave way to practice squad callup Sealver Siliga, who was excellent in the final three games of the season, coming up with three sacks and several run-stuffs.
The Patriots did finish fifth in sacks (48), but were 30th in rushing defense (134 yards per game) and 24th in yards per carry allowed (4.5).
Grade: C plus
Captain Jerod Mayo went down with a pectoral tear in Week 6, but Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes filled in admirably in run defense, particularly Spikes, who was aggressive and decisive with his run blitzes and sure with his tackling. But the duo struggled in pass coverage, especially Hightower, who consistently took wrong angles and was a step too slow against running backs. The duo also didn’t make many impact plays: Hightower had one sack and three passes defended, while Spikes had zero sacks, one interception, two passes defended, and a fumble recovery.
It took rookie Jamie Collins until Week 12 to get significant playing time, though he has become a regular contributor in recent weeks and has been an athletic weapon in pass coverage. Dane Fletcher was used mostly as a blitzer, finishing with two sacks and a forced fumble, but he was a liability in coverage and against the run.
Grade: A minus
The unit struggled with nagging injuries all season, and had a few letdowns toward the end, allowing big passing days to Jason Campbell, Ryan Tannehill, and Case Keenum. But overall the secondary was by far the most improved area on defense, and carried the Patriots to several wins early on.
Aqib Talib was mostly outstanding, matching up against No. 1 receivers and tight ends, and finished with four interceptions, 13 pass defenses, and a well-deserved Pro Bowl berth. Alfonzo Dennard was a solid No. 2 corner, but missed most or all of six games down the stretch after having meniscus surgery.
The nicest surprise was rookie Logan Ryan, who led the team with five interceptions, added 1.5 sacks, and leapfrogged Kyle Arrington when Dennard went down. Arrington had two sacks and an interception, but was a liability against the deep pass.
Devin McCourty excelled in his first full-time season at free safety, finishing with two forced fumbles, an interception, and some heady plays, like the tip-drill interception to Marquice Cole. Steve Gregory was a liability at times in pass coverage but provided excellent support against the run.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski was probably the biggest Pro Bowl omission among Patriots. He was 38 of 41 on field goals, including 5 of 6 from 50-plus yards, and kicked two 53-yarders in the fourth quarter in the comeback win over Houston. His 65 touchbacks were second to Denver’s Matt Prater (81), and he successfully kicked and recovered an onside kick against Cleveland.
Rookie punter Ryan Allen wasn’t fantastic, but he was a solid 17th in net average (39.9), allowed only 29 of 76 punts to be returned, and didn’t give up a touchdown.
Edelman’s 10.7-yard punt-return average was well down from his 15.5 average last year, but was still a respectable number, and he had four returns of 20-plus yards.
The Patriots didn’t have a kickoff return of 50-plus yards until the final game, but finished 17th in average starting position (21.9-yard line).Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin