New England Patriots
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Patriots season of promise ends with a thud
Though preseason predictions of a possible undefeated campaign blew up with an opening night loss to the Chiefs, the defending champion Patriots rounded into form to win 13 games to once again win the AFC East, secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC and represent the conference yet again in the Super Bowl. The Patriots found a way to deal with injuries and personnel limitations on the defensive front seven.
Offensively, Tom Brady defied his age again to lead the NFL's No. 1 offense and No. 2 passing attack. He leaned heavily on All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Brandin Cooks, both of whom topped 1,000 yards and totaled 15 touchdowns. The running game struggled early in the year as Mike Gillislee failed to find much success, but took off when Dion Lewis took over on the way to 896 yards and an impressive 5-yard average to balance out the offense over the second half.
Defensively, free-agent addition Stephon Gilmore and the entire secondary struggled in the first month. Though the defense finished ranked 29th in the league, including the No. 30 pass defense, the unit found a way to go from dead last in points allowed in September to finish No. 5.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: It had a different look without Julian Edelman, including more downfield throws to trade addition Brandin Cooks, but the Tom Brady-led passing attack was once again among the most potent in the game. The unit overcame early-season pass protection problems and a rare five-game interception streak by Brady late in the season to put up consistent production to key the winning ways in New England. Cooks and Rob Gronkowski both topped 1,000 yards to lead the way for a deep group that had seven guys haul in 30 or more receptions.
WHAT WENT WRONG: Though Matt Patricia's coaching found a way to build the No. 5 scoring unit in the league, including a stretch of eight straight wins holding opponents to 17 points or fewer, the defense had a variety of issues pop up throughout the year. Early on there were "communication" problems in the secondary that led to big plays allowed and two losses in the first four weeks. The lack of a consistent pass rush and a run defense that allowed opponents to average 4.7 yards per carry didn't help. But in the end the bend-but-don't-break unit was never the fatal flaw it looked to be early on.
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER: Running back Mike Gillislee was supposed to replace and improve upon LeGarrette Blount's contributions that included a franchise-record NFL-high 18 touchdowns a year ago. But the restricted free agent from Buffalo, where he led the NFL with a 5.7-yard average last fall, never hit his stride. Gillislee averaged just 3.7 yards per carry on 104 attempts. After opening the year with a key role in the first eight games, Gillislee was a healthy scratch six times over the second half of the season, the odd man out in the backfield.
MOST SURPRISING PLAYER: Kyle Van Noy became arguably the most important defender on the Patriots' front seven over the course of 2017. He started 12 of the 13 games he played, finishing third on the team with 73 tackles, second with 5.5 sacks and added nine quarterback hits and two passes defensed. Van Noy's versatility was utilized as a run defender in coverage and as a rusher on a very much undermanned edge of the defense.
ASSISTANT COACH ON THE RISE: With defensive coordinator Matt Patricia set to move on to become head coach of the Lions, linebackers coach Brian Flores is clearly ascending. Well-respected by his players and fellow coaches alike, Flores got an interview for the Cardinals' head coaching vacancy and is likely to take over as the coordinator next season. He's also clearly a name to keep an eye on for future head coaching jobs.