End of season review: New England Patriots

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick on the sidelines during the game against Tampa Bay Buccaneers on August 16, 2013
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Sports Mole looks back at the 2013 campaign of the New England Patriots.

The New England Patriots overcame adversity from all angles to reach their third-successive AFC championship game, but ultimately fell short of reaching the Super Bowl in the 2013 campaign.

Bill Belichick's side posted a 12-4 record and beat the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round of the playoffs, despite being without several key players.

However, they fell to defeat against the Denver Broncos as they lost in the conference title game for the second-straight year.

Sports Mole looks back at their 2013 season.

Pre-season expectations: During the off-season the Patriots were rocked when Pro Bowl tight end and one of the key members of their offense, Aaron Hernandez, was arrested on a murder charge in June. He was immediately released by the team, leaving a devastating mark on the club and also their plans for the 2013 campaign. The club were also going into the year without All-Pros Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker due to injury and the latter leaving the club to join the Denver Broncos. Division rivals the Miami Dolphins strengthened during free agency and the Draft, splashing out vast sums to attempt to close the gap on the Patriots. It appeared they could face a challenge for the AFC East for the first time since the 2008 season, especially after losing more key players during the year such as Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Sebastian Vollmer and Gronkowski again, after his initial return.

Highlight of the season: The Patriots went into a showdown with Peyton Manning's high-flying Broncos in November looking to close the gap at the top of the AFC. The game could not have started any worse for the Patriots as three turnovers in their first three possessions handed the Broncos a 17-point lead, which became a 24-point lead going into half time. However, Brady and his offense came out firing after the break as he fired touchdowns to Julian Edelman twice, and Gronkowski added another, while Brandon Bolden ran in to give Belichick's side the lead. Denver came back to tie to send the game into overtime, and with just three minutes left Ryan Allen's punt wasn't signalled well by former Patriot Welker and it hit teammate Tony Carter, allowing the Patriots to gather. Stephen Gostkowski fired his side to an unlikely 34-31 victory.

Biggest disappointment: The loss in the AFC championship game was a huge blow for Bill Belichick's side, but that could have been different if they had earned the number one seed in the AFC. After going 6-0 in the AFC East in the 2012 season, a similar performance would have seen them secure the top seed and the road to the Super Bowl would have travelled through Gillette Stadium. However, defeats to the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins at MetLife Stadium and SunLife Stadium prevented this outcome. The margins of the losses were narrow and decided on a few key plays, which would have frustrated the Patriots coaching staff dearly, such as a costly penalty on Chris Jones against the Jets and a touchdown drop by Danny Amendola against the Dolphins.

Player of the season: When Wes Welker was allowed to leave the Patriots in the off-season, the club had his replacement lined up in the form of Danny Amendola. However, it didn't quite work out that way as the receiver sustained a groin injury in the first game of the year and never really fully recovered. Julian Edelman was an after-thought addition by the Patriots after they allowed him to test the free-agent market and they brought him back on a cheap one-year deal, and boy, they were glad they did that. While Amendola and Gronkowski were on the injury table, and rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins struggled to get up to pace with the offense, Edelman became Tom Brady's only pass-catching option. He delivered week after week for the club and showed durability for the first time in his career, as he played all 16 matches as well as the two playoff games. He notched 105 receptions for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns on the season to ensure the Patriots didn't miss Welker, far from an easy task to do.

Unsung hero: As the Patriots lost cornerstones of their defense when Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork went down with weeks of each other at the start of the season, one player stepped up more than most. Rob Ninkovich has always been an underdog with the club after fighting his way into a starting role, after joining the club as a long snapper in the 2009 campaign. Since then he has become as consistent as they come for Bill Belichick's side and he did that again in 2013. He played 95% of his side's defensive snaps in the campaign, which along with fellow defensive end Chandler Jones was the highest in the NFL. He stepped into a leadership role when he was voted as a captain and ensured the club were competitive to the last as he recorded 91 tackles and eight sacks.

Off-season changes: The Patriots have already made moves both on their coaching staff and with their roster. Long-time offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia retired from the game after 30 plus years coaching in the NFL, while Pepper Johnson left as linebackers coach to join the Buffalo Bills. The Patriots lost Aqib Talib to free agency as the Denver Broncos whisked him away on a long-term deal, but they hit straight back, getting Darrelle Revis following his release from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Belichick's side also secured the re-signing of Julian Edelman and then captured Seattle Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner. However, they still have work to do to ease the burden on Ninkovich and Jones on the defensive line, while Vince Wilfork has reportedly asked to leave the club rather than take a pay cut after 10 seasons. He will need to be replaced in the Draft, where they will also need to target a tight end to act as cover for Gronkowski and to replace Hernandez. Texas A&M's Jace Amaro, Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Notre Dame's Troy Niklas have all been mooted and it will be interesting to watch what they do come May.

2014 prospects: The signing of Darrelle Revis is huge for the Patriots for the 2014 season. Talib was brilliant for the club during his one-and-a-half-year spell with them, but the injury bug struck him at the worst possible times during the two AFC championship games. Revis is more durable and a lot better, and is arguably the best defensive back in the game. That should give the Patriots' young offense less to do next season and if Brady has a healthy Gronkowski and another tight end to go with Edelman, Amendola and Dobson, we should be getting ready for another classic showdown with the Broncos next season for the right to go to the Super Bowl.

Quarterback Tom Brady of the New England Patriots walks off the field after a game at Gillette Stadium on November 24, 2013
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