In 2011, the New England Patriots won the AFC title for the fifth time in eleven years. They nearly won their fourth Super Bowl but fell short when Eli Manning broke their hearts for the second time in five years. Heading into the 2012 season, the Patriots were looking to redeem themselves by advancing to the Super Bowl again and this time winning it, but fell one game short of their goal, losing to the Baltimore Ravens in AFC championship game.
The Patriots had problems to overcome even before the season began. The main focus for the Patriots was fixing a receiving corps that was less than stellar the previous year. After releasing Chad Johnson, the Patriots attempted to replace him with Brandon Lloyd. Then the Patriots went to work on attempting to re-sign Pro Bowler Wes Welker. Negotiations with the star went on during the entire off-season until finally the Patriots were forced to place the franchise tag on him. It’s a drama that will be brought up again this coming off-season.
The Patriots also had issues on their offensive line. Matt Light announced his retirement after spending eleven years as a staple in the Patriots offense. As if losing Light wasn’t enough, they also lost Pro Bowler Brian Waters who decided not to report to camp as he wanted to play for the Houston Texans, which is near his home. The only returning starters for the team were Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer, both of which dealt with injuries throughout training camp and the season.
Offensively, the Patriots changed their style for the second straight year. In 2011, the team used a duel tight end set with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski being the most thrown to receivers. But Hernandez went down with an ankle injury in week two which would hamper him for nearly half the season. That forced the Patriots to adjust accordingly, and they did. They began to use an up tempo offense which kept opposing defenses off balance. The adjustment helped to the Patriots to be the most prolific offense in the NFL, leading the league in yards and points per game.
Defensively the Patriots started off where they left off the season before. The run defense led by defensive tackle Vince Wilfork was ranked in the top ten the whole season. The Patriots had been rebuilding the secondary over the past three seasons but have struggled. Key draft picks Patrick Chung and Ras-I Dowling have struggled with injuries and did again this season. But when safety free agent signing Steve Gregory returned from injury and the team traded for Aqib Talib things started to change. They moved Pro Bowl cornerback Devin McCourty to safety where he flourished and rookie Alfonzo Dennard came along at cornerback. After struggling early the pass defense became solid and the defense finally became a strength of the team.
One common theme early in the season was fourth quarter struggles. The Patriots blew several fourth quarter leads, which was a major contribution to their 3-3 record to start the year. In those three losses, they lost by a total of four points. The key turning point for the team came in a home game against the New York Jets. After blowing a ten point lead and trailing by three late, the Patriots got the game into overtime. There, Stephen Gostkowski hit a go-ahead field goal, and then defensive end Rob Ninkovich forced a fumble which the Patriots recovered to win the game.
The next game was in London against the St. Louis Rams and was the team’s most complete game to date. They jumped out to an early lead and didn’t look back thumping the Rams 45-7. The next game was where the Patriots knew a change had to be made to the defensive secondary. Against the Buffalo Bills, the Patriots gave up 481 total yards and 31 points as they squeaked by their division rivals 37-31. In that game Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 337 yards. Those are numbers the Patriots are used to putting on opponents, instead of the other way around.
After the team lost a heartbreaker in Seattle during week six, the Patriots would go on to win nine of their last ten, with the only loss coming to the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers in a game in which they trailed 28-3 before coming back to tie the game late. Only a late touchdown by the 49ers let that game slip away. Going into the last game of the season the Patriots sat in the third seed of the AFC one game behind the Texans and Denver Broncos but owned the tiebreaker over both. The Texans lost to the Indianapolis Colts earlier in the day and the Patriots handled the Miami Dolphins 28-0 securing a first round bye.
That bye became crucial as Ninkovich, the team leader in sacks and forced fumbles, suffered an injury against Miami. The week off gave the Patriots a chance to go into their first playoff game against the Texans completely healthy. While health smiled on the Patriots late in the season, the old injury bug crept back in that divisional playoff game. Early in the game, the team lost Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead, the two players the Patriots’ game plan focused on. But they adjusted to the unfortunate circumstances and beat the Texans 41-28 advancing to their second straight AFC championship game. More good luck came to the Patriots as the Ravens upset the Broncos in Denver, giving the Patriots the opportunity to host the game.
While the Patriots have been a team known for taking care of playoff games at home they were unable to do so Sunday night. For the first time since Tom Brady took over as starting quarterback in 2001, the Patriots lost a game in which they led at halftime. The devastating loss ended a season in which the Patriots looked to be on their way to another Super Bowl appearance.
The season was a big success for several players. Brady was the third best quarterback in the league behind Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. Gronkowski was the league’s best tight end despite missing several weeks due to a broken forearm. Julian Edelman took a big step toward being a key contributor in the future. Defensively the rushing defense was as good as the team could’ve hoped for which seems to have one defensive problem solved heading into next season. The secondary still needs work but with Dennard, McCourty, and Talib, they are in a lot better position than a year ago. Despite the loss Sunday night, it was a good season by the Patriots and they seem to be in a position where they will make another run next season.