Bill Belichick is always looking forward, on to the next challenge.
“Ready for the playoffs,” he said last week. “That’s what you work all year for — to get to this position and be able to compete in the postseason. We’re excited about it.”
But we can’t forget about the events that led us to this place, either. The Patriots finished 2014 in the same place they always do – atop the AFC East for the 12th time in 14 years, with a 12-4 record, the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, and a lot of hype about making the Super Bowl in three weeks.
Before we move ahead to Saturday’s divisional playoff game against the Ravens, let’s review how the Patriots performed this year on offense, and where they stand entering the playoffs:
Starts: DE Rob Ninkovich (16), DE Chandler Jones (10), DT Vince Wilfork (16), DE Akeem Ayers (7), DT Chris Jones (13), DT Sealver Siliga (6), DT Alan Branch (4), DE Dominique Easley (7), DT Joe Vellano (2), DE Zach Moore (0), DE Michael Buchanan (0)
Position analysis: The Patriots don’t have a lot of natural pass rushers on the defensive line — Chandler Jones is really the only one who qualifies — but they have a lot of versatility and athleticism in the unit, which allows them to adjust their defense to the opposing personnel. Ninkovich, Ayers, and Chandler Jones each can rush the passer or drop into coverage. They can go light and quick up front, or they can go “heavy” with Wilfork, Siliga, and Chris Jones. They can play 3-4 or 4-3. Their versatility allows Bill Belichick to get creative with his schemes, resulting in the Patriots finishing 13th with 40 sacks, despite not having the best talent up front.
Player analysis: Ninkovich was the glue of the defense again, leading the Patriots in snaps (1,021, 94 percent) and contributing across the board — eight sacks, an interception, a fumble recovery touchdown, and two passes defended. He’s not the most physically gifted defender, but he has a relentless motor in the pass rush and does an excellent job of setting the edge in the run game. Chandler Jones missed six games with a hip injury and played just 52 percent of snaps on the season, finishing with only six sacks, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. He’s by far the most naturally athletic player on the line, as displayed in Week 2 with his field goal block, recovery, and 60-yard touchdown. But he also was pushed around a bit in the run game and needs to continue to build his leg strength. Wilfork, 33, was one of the best stories on the Patriots. Facing a lot of uncertainty coming off a torn Achilles’, and forced to slash his contract and play for up to $3 million in incentives, Wilfork proved to be more than durable. He played in 74 percent of snaps, appearing in all 16 games, and while he was light on stats — no sacks and one interception this year — Wilfork was the linchpin of the defense and stout in the run game. He regularly took on double-teams and clogged running lanes, and earned all $3 million in incentives. Ayers also was a great story. Acquired from Tennessee in October for almost nothing, he did a great job filling in for Chandler Jones, even though he had never played defensive end regularly. Ayers had four sacks, an interception, and a pass defended, showing good versatility in rushing the passer and dropping into coverage. Siliga missed nine games after breaking a bone in his hand in Week 3, but he was active and disruptive in his limited playing time, finishing with 2.5 sacks up the middle. Chris Jones was a solid fill-in for Siliga, chipping in three sacks, and is versatile enough to play 4-3 DT or 3-4 DE. Branch was signed in November to play 10-15 snaps per game in the middle and has been solid but without impact plays. Buchanan went on IR after three games, and rookie Moore had a half-sack in eight games.
Starts: ILB Jamie Collins (15), ILB Dont’a Hightower (12), ILB Jerod Mayo (6), LB Jonathan Casillas (3), LB Deontae Skinner (1), LB Darius Fleming (1), LB Chris White
Position analysis: Gone are the days of NFL teams using three linebackers on a majority of plays. The Patriots were in their sub defense on about 70 percent of snaps, meaning they usually went with five defensive backs and only two linebackers. The Patriots lost their defensive captain in Week 6 when Mayo went down, but it allowed youngsters Collins and Hightower the opportunity to flourish. They have two athletic freaks who can rush the quarterback, chase runners from sideline to sideline, and cover running backs and athletic tight ends out of the backfield. Collins and Hightower were among the biggest Pro Bowl omissions this year, and the Patriots should be set at linebacker for the next few years as they blossom into elite players.
Player analysis: Hightower became the leader of the defense, and turned into an excellent player in his third season. He missed four games with injury, but he still finished with 89 tackles (nine for loss), six sacks, and a forced fumble. Hightower still isn’t great in coverage, but he showed tremendous instincts in the run game and was an excellent blitzer. Collins wasn’t the most consistent player in his second NFL season, first as a full-time starter, but he is certainly their most electric. He didn’t show the best instincts in the run game, but that will come over time. He led the Patriots with 115 tackles (eight for loss), and added 4 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, and 3 passes defended. Collins is also an excellent blitzer, and did a terrific job in covering running backs out of the backfield — 6-3 linebackers aren’t supposed to be able to keep up with speedy running backs, but Collins is an athletic freak show. Their performances highlight the lack of impact plays Mayo has made over the years — 10 sacks, 3 interceptions, and 8 forced fumbles in seven seasons — and Mayo might become expendable next year after making 53 tackles and only one sack in six games this year (at the very least, he’ll likely be asked to restructure his contract). Casillas was acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay late in the season, became a core special teams player, and did an admirable job in filling in for Hightower against San Diego. Skinner was cut early in the year, Fleming was bumped up to the practice squad late in the season (and showed good speed against Buffalo), and White was strictly a special teams player.
Starts: Darrelle Revis (16), Brandon Browner (9), Logan Ryan (11), Kyle Arrington (11), Malcolm Butler (4), Alfonzo Dennard (4)
Position analysis: Statistically, the Patriots’ pass defense was about average. They finished 17th in the NFL in pass defense and allowed 24 touchdowns. But a lot of those stats were put up in garbage time. Revis and Browner formed arguably the best cornerback duo in the NFL, and the Patriots need to do everything they can to sign Revis to a contract extension and bring him back next year. They also have one of the deepest cornerback units in the league – Dennard went from starter last year to the bench this year, but he is much better than your typical fifth or sixth CB.
Player analysis: Revis was everything the Patriots hoped he would be, giving them excellent lock-down coverage in all 16 games. He was versatile enough to help eliminate speedy receivers such as Golden Tate or bigger receivers such as Demaryius Thomas, and had two interceptions and a team-high 14 passes defended. He also allowed just two touchdowns and 52 percent completions all year, and most impressively, committed just three penalties. Browner was a penalty machine — his 15 led the league, and he only played in nine games — and at times his foot speed and physical play hurt the Patriots with penalties and big gains allowed (the Patriots often needed to put a safety behind him). But overall Browner brought a much-needed physical edge to the secondary, and provided rare size to cover big receivers and tight ends. Arrington was solid against speedy slot receivers, playing 40 percent of snaps, and is surprisingly effective as a blitzer. Ryan has good cover skills, but is way too soft at the line of scrimmage and often gets beat trying to make his jam. Ryan was third among cornerbacks with 47 percent snaps played, but he seemed to take a step back in his second season. Butler showed flashes after making the team as an undrafted free agent, and surpassed Dennard on the depth chart. Dennard had one of the more disappointing seasons on the team, unable to get on the field (potentially because of his lack of special teams skills), and then was placed on IR two weeks ago with a hamstring injury.
Starts: FS Devin McCourty (16), SS Patrick Chung (16), SS Duron Harmon (0), SS Tavon Wilson (0), SS Nate Ebner (0), SS Don Jones (0)
Position analysis: They have a Pro Bowl-caliber center fielder in McCourty, whose contract is up this offseason and is a prime candidate for the franchise tag. And the Patriots didn’t know what they’d have opposite McCourty this year but ended up having a solid three-man rotation at strong safety, led by Chung, who was one of the best stories on the team.
Player analysis: McCourty had another excellent season, but he was a Pro Bowl omission after finishing with 2 interceptions, 6 passes defended, and 1 forced fumble (the Patriots also didn’t allow a 40-yard pass through the first eight games of the season). Chung was excellent in run support, often used as an eighth defender in the box when the Patriots were missing Chandler Jones and Siliga up front, but he also provided surprisingly good coverage against tight ends, which was never his strong suit. Chung never will be confused with Revis, and he’s now starting to come out on third downs, but for $1 million the Patriots got great value out of him. Harmon only had 12 tackles and an interception in 16 games, and probably had hoped to play more than 26 percent of the snaps. Wilson still hasn’t justified being drafted in the second round in 2012, but he’s finally starting to carve out a role on defense. Ebner is strictly a special teams player, as was Jones, who was cut in November.
K Stephen Gostkowski, P Ryan Allen, LS Danny Aiken, ST Matthew Slater, PR Julian Edelman, KR Danny Amendola
Position analysis: The Patriots had one of the best special teams units in the league, led by Gostkowski and Slater, both of whom made the Pro Bowl. Allen also has been solid in two seasons for a league minimum salary. Slater and Allen are signed for two more seasons, and the Patriots will look to extend Gostkowski’s contract this offseason before he becomes a free agent. Edelman was excellent at punt returning again, and the Patriots finally found a role for Amendola at kick returner.
Player analysis: Gostkowski was first in the NFL with 35 field goals made, second with a 95 percent success rate, was fifth in touchbacks (53), went 13 of 14 from 40-plus yards, and didn’t have a field goal blocked. Allen was solid, finishing 12th in net average (39.9 yards) and not allowing any touchdowns in the return game. He did have a punt blocked in Week 1 thanks to a low snap from Aiken, but he also came up big in wins over Denver and Detroit with punts of 67 and 66 yards to flip the field. Edelman finished sixth among punt returners with a 12.0 average (minimum 10 returns), with two 40-yard returns and one 84-yard touchdown. Amendola had a solid 24-yard average on kick returns, with a long of 81. Slater led the team with 16 special teams tackles, and was the captain of a unit that blocked three field goals and scored three touchdowns (one punt return, two field goal block returns).
Analysis: This year won’t be remembered as one of Belichick’s best coaching jobs, because his team is loaded with talent. But Belichick made almost all the right moves as a coach and executive, building a team that looks primed to reach the Super Bowl. The Patriots excelled across the board: They were first in the NFL in point differential, tied for second in turnover differential, sixth on third-down efficiency on offense, ninth in red zone offense, and tied for sixth in red zone defense. They also scored five touchdowns on defense and special teams. He also did a great job of adjusting to injuries and personnel, particularly on defense, where they somehow seemed to get better when Mayo and Chandler Jones exited the lineup. There were a few negatives. We didn’t like the way Belichick handled the offensive line through the first four games of the season, constantly rotating players and making Brady very uncomfortable out there. Belichick should have had a more concrete plan for replacing Mankins, and we wonder if his refusal to upgrade over Wendell or Connolly could cost the Patriots in the playoffs. The Patriots also committed a franchise record 141 penalties, eighth-most in the league. But they went 12-4 and earned home-field advantage in the playoffs, so it’s hard to say too much negative about the coaching.