New England Patriots 2013 Team Review: Failure or Miracle?

Despite Super Bowl aspirations, did the 2013 Patriots actually overachieve?

The New England Patriots' season came to a tragic end last week in the AFC Championship game against the Denver Broncos. But is it possible that their 2013 campaign still be viewed as a tremendous success?

Over the past 13 years, the Patriots have been the ideal NFL franchise. With five Super Bowl appearances, three wins in the big game, eight AFC Championship appearances, 12 double-digit win seasons, a 16-0 campaign, and a book full of records set by Head Coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, no other team in the NFL has matched what this team has done since the turn of the millennium.

Heading into the 2013, it was business as usual, with the Patriots’ sights set on the Lombardi trophy. Well, that was until the Pats lost their top five receivers from last year, with one in jail facing various charges including murder. As if that wasn’t enough, throughout the year they lost key players at almost every personnel group, and Tom Brady had perhaps his worst season since his rookie year.

How did this team manage to win 12 games and make it to the AFC Championship? Have the vaunted Patriots peaked? Will their success continue next year? Let’s dig in.

The Good

As one can expect with a Tom Brady-led football team, the Patriots’ strength was their passing attack. When adjusting for schedule, the Pats finished the year ranking sixth in Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points at 87.46. Despite losing essentially all of his top receiving options, Brady still posted a PNEP of 68.71, good enough for ninth in the league.

But ninth isn’t what we've come to expect from one of the game’s all-time greats. Brady was noticeably off his game to begin the year, before finally turning it around after the Patriots bye in Week 10. So who exactly did he throw to all season in order to have an elite passing game?

Meet Julian Edelman. Throughout his career with the Patriots, Edelman played everywhere on the field, from defensive back, to special teams, and as a receiver. But never had he excelled at the latter position until this season, when he was thrust into a high-volume role. Edelman essentially replaced Wes Welker in this offense en route to catching over 100 balls, having the 19th-best Reception NEP among pass catchers, and putting up the sixth-highest catch rate in football, becoming Tom Brady’s go to target all season long.

Aside from Edelman, Brady was stuck throwing to free-agent acquisition Danny Amendola, and rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson. Amendola failed to not only stay healthy in his first season as a Patriot, but he didn’t even produce when he did play, as his Reception NEP fell outside the top 50 amongst wide receivers.

The one from this group with the real promise is Aaron Dobson, who Brady took more of a liking to as the season progressed. When targeted, the rookie was insanely efficient, as his Success Rate of 94.59% ranked fifth among all wide receivers. This tells us that nearly 95% of Dobson's grabs resulted in positive NEP gains.

But this pass offense could have been even better if not for some devastating injuries. Running back Shane Vereen and tight end Rob Gronkowski played a combined 14 games this year, but when they did play, the Patriots offense was a juggernaut compared to the rest of the season.

Brady was the only constant for this passing game in 2013, but that alone was enough to make this an elite unit.

If there has ever been a weakness to the Patriots, it’s their pass defense. But not this year. Despite a slide towards the end of the year, New England finished the year ninth in Defensive Passing NEP when adjusting for strength of schedule. A big reason for this was a standout year from cornerback Aqib Talib, who Belichick used throughout the year to help eliminate the opposing team’s top receiving threat. Devin McCourty also was a huge factor for this top-10 unit, making a full transition to free safety where he became one of the league’s best.

But the secondary never would have been able to hold up if it weren’t for a much improved pass rush led by second year defensive end Chandler Jones. The Patriots were able to rack up 48 sacks this season, good enough for the fifth-most in the NFL.

Despite Belichick’s inability to draft cornerbacks, this could be a strength of the team for years to come.

The Bad

Coming into the season, the Patriots were built to stop the run thanks to a mammoth front seven. And for the first five weeks of the season, their rush defense scores was one of the better marks in the league.

But in what seemed to be a reoccurring theme for this squad, New England lost run stuffing studs Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo within a couple of weeks of each other, allowing the defense to be gashed week in and week out on the ground. The Patriots finished the year with the fourth-worst defense against the run according to our metrics.

This ultimately became the team’s downfall, as the Patriots were continuously giving up four and five yards per carry each week, which made it extremely difficult for the team to get off the field on third downs.

What Should They Do?

The first order of business for the Patriots should be to retain some of their key free agents. Both Aqib Talib and Julian Edelman were vital to the team’s success this year and are entering the offseason as unrestricted free agents. There is mutual interest for both of these two players and the Patriots to return to New England, and they should be the team’s top two priorities. In addition to Edelman and Talib, the Patriots will likely resign center Ryan Wendell who has played in every game since 2012.

Coming off career years and looking for long-term deals, the Patriots may let LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Spikes walk in free agency, as Belichick has been known to take firm stances in assessing the values of his own players.

The biggest position needs for the team heading into the offseason are pass catchers, coverage linebackers and interior lineman. Despite drafting two wide receivers last year, the Patriots will likely give another one a shot in this year’s draft. But I suspect they’ll try to bring in Steelers free agent Emmanuel Sanders after missing out on him last year.

Another worry is at tight end. Everyone knows Rob Gronkowski is one of the game’s most dynamic weapons when healthy, but he seems to be missing more time each year. Look for the Pats to spend an early-round pick on a tight end in a draft that’s loaded at the position.

Aside from taking care of their own guys and picking up a piece or two through the draft and/or free agency, this team is still one of the most talented in the league, and the second youngest in football. Look for them to remain on of the NFL’s best teams in 2014.