The New England Patriots finished the 2013 regular season with a dozen victories and only four close losses. In the loss to the Bengals, a pass in the end zone at the end of the game fell short in a monsoon; a bizarre penalty call sent the Jets game to overtime where the Patriots lost by three; the last two losses to Carolina and Miami saw the Patriots with a chance to win the game at the end of the fourth quarter. Of course, there were some close victories as well with Week 1 in Buffalo, the Week 6 Saints comeback, the Week 8 Dolphins game, Week 14 against Cleveland, and of course the Week 12 comeback against Denver, to name a few.
The Patriots have been good, lucky, and most of all competitive each and every week. Early in the season games were won by the defense when players like defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, linebacker Jerod Mayo, and cornerback Aqib Talib had big games and helped the Patriots win ugly as the offense adapted to having tight end Aaron Hernandez in jail, tight end Rob Gronkowski out injured, and wide receiver Wes Welker helping Peyton Manning set records in Denver. In their place the Patriots leaned on young wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins as free agent signing Danny Amendola was injured.
When the defense was decimated by injuries (Talib, Mayo, Kelly, Vince Wilfork, and just about everyone in the secondary a one time or another), tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back Shane Vereen returned to spark the offense while running back Stevan Ridley took a back seat due to fumbling issues. Quarterback Tom Brady started putting up big passing numbers again and New England looked back to their 2012 level of production. However, another injury to Gronkowski, Vereen dinged up, the rookie wide receivers all injured, and the secondary still in flux due to injury left the Patriots leaning on running back LeGarrette Blount and wide receiver Julian Edelman to win games.
There are a number of deserving players for the cover32 Game Ball for the entire regular season:
* Quarterback Tom Brady has turned around his rough start with a number of strong games as his weapons returned from injury. He had 4,343 yards, 60.5% completion rate, 25 touchdowns, and only 11 interceptions.
* Running backs Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount combined for 1,545 yards and 14 touchdowns and keyed a number of victories, particularly down the stretch with key wins against Baltimore and Buffalo.
* Third-down/passing running back Shane Vereen keyed the offense in game one against Buffalo and after he returned from injury with multiple big plays and injecting another third down weapon into the passing game.
* Left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Logan Mankins both fought through injuries to have strong seasons holding together the left side of the offensive line to keep quarterback Tom Brady upright and opening holes for the running game. In addition, Mankins slid over to left tackle when Solder was slowed by multiple concussions and the team did not miss a beat.
* At cornerback, Aqib Talib was a shutdown cornerback not seen in New England since the days of Ty Law. Before a hip injury he regularly was shutting down the opponents’ top receiver. After the injury, he returned and played at less than 100% yet gutted out some strong performances down the stretch.
* Safety Devin McCourty, despite having rookie Duron Harmon lined up next to him while Steve Gregory was out a few games, was the highest rated safety in the NFL (+18.7 rating per ProFootballFocus.com). For New England, however, he passed the eye test in that—unlike the Patrick Chung 2012 Patriots secondary—the Patriots cut down dramatically on big pass plays allowed. Just for that McCourty gets serious consideration.
* At defensive end the duo of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich combined 19.5 sacks while playing in every game on defense. In fact, they both were on the field for over 95% of the defensive snaps (Ninkovich 1,105 snaps, 95.6% and Jones 1,134 snaps, 98.1 per ESPNBoston.com). Playing all three downs practically all series all season long, the iron men at defensive end were consistent in both rushing the passer and stuffing the run (particularly Ninkovich).
However, there was one player who stepped up and earned the cover32 Game Ball for the entire regular season: wide receiver Julian Edelman.
Edelman stepped into the biggest shoes on offense—those of departed free agent wide receiver Wes Welker—admirably, despite being an afterthought in free agency as he came back at a low salary to presumably backup big money free agent wide receiver Danny Amendola. With Amendola injured in training camp, Edelman—as the only wide receiver in camp having played with quarterback Tom Brady—continued to build upon his chemistry with Brady and stepped in as his top target when Edelman and Vereen went out injured after the opening week victory over Buffalo.
Edelman was on the field for over 1,000 snaps (1,032 snaps, 86% per ESPNBoston.com) and all sixteen games, Edelman put up Welker-like numbers on the field. He hauled in 105 passes for 1,056 yards and 6 touchdowns. Many of the receptions were tough catches over the middle in traffic with everyone on defense knowing the ball was going to the only receiver on the field Tom Brady trusted.
Even with the return of Gronkowski and Vereen—after a brief period of transition where he had only six receptions in three games—Edelman went back to being Brady’s top target. Against Miami after Gronkowski was out injured, Edelman put up season highs of 13 receptions for 139 yards. With 35 receptions over the last four games of the season, Edelman reestablished himself as the top target in New England.
For this unexpected and outstanding performance this season in replacing the irreplaceable Wes Welker, the cover32 Game Ball for the entire regular season goes to New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman.