Season grade: Near perfection. This is how high the bar has been raised in New England in the 18th year of Bill Belichick's tenure as coach. Anything less than a Super Bowl win is a disappointment. After an offseason of media hype about the possibility of a perfect season, the Patriots faltered early with a 2-2 record, but they never wilted under the pressure of expectations as they gradually built momentum while also managing a challenging injury situation. They were within one drive/play of winning a sixth Super Bowl. While there is naturally disappointment for them that they didn't do so, there are still many positives to take from the season.
Season in review: Tom Brady turned in a historic season for a 40-year-old quarterback, breaking numerous records on his way to winning the NFL's Most Valuable Player award. The team won 11 of its final 12 regular-season games -- some in dramatic fashion -- and players earned Belichick's respect for their work ethic and ability to come through in critical situations. A week spent at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs between road games against the Broncos (in Denver) and Raiders (in Mexico City) was a team-bonding experience that brought players closer together in a year where external distractions could have splintered them. And no review of the 2017 season would be complete without including the team's stunning trade of backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo on Oct. 31.
Biggest play of season: With no shortage from which to pick, tight end Rob Gronkowski's final-drive takeover in a comeback 27-24 win over the Steelers on Dec. 17 isn't a bad place to start. The Patriots trailed 24-19 with 2:06 remaining when they began a drive at their own 23-yard line. Gronkowski had three catches for 69 yards -- one of which he reached down to pluck off his shoe tops -- to help produce the ultimate winning touchdown. It took a late recovery by the defense in a wild ending to seal the result.
He said it: "I'm really proud of the way our team competed tonight, but unfortunately it wasn't our best, like it needs to be against a great team like the Eagles. But I'm proud of players, coaches, everyone competed for 60 minutes. It just wasn't quite enough. It's disappointing. These guys are champions of the AFC, they earned that. We just came up a little short. It's a tough way to end, but there were a lot of really good things about the season." -- Belichick, on Super Bowl LII
Key offseason questions
Biggest draft need: The off-the-line linebacker position could benefit from an influx of youth and athleticism, which would also provide more scheme flexibility with captain Dont'a Hightower, who can play both on the line and off. And while it might not necessarily be a top need, the idea of trying to find the "next Jimmy Garoppolo" -- meaning a developmental quarterback -- figures to be on the radar. Brady will be 41 by the time next season begins.
Free-agency targets: Attempts to retain their own probably will be the top priority, as players scheduled for unrestricted free agency include running backs Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead; offensive tackles Nate Solder, Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle; cornerback Malcolm Butler; and receiver Danny Amendola, among others. After the way Butler's season ended, with him not playing on defense, it's hard to imagine him returning in 2018.
What made 2017 different and how it might affect 2018: In the buildup to the Super Bowl, Belichick highlighted how the team's roster construction was different from in past years, comparing it to 2001 in this sense: "We had more veteran players from other teams, guys that came in from different organizations that played key roles on our team, along with a lot of veteran players that were carryovers. We didn't have a lot of contributions from our rookie class this year, although we had some. More from veteran players. Not that it's good or bad, just different." With that, look for more of an influx of youth, and the Patriots have three picks in the first two rounds as solid currency.
Major shakeup on coaching staff: With coordinators Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia departing for head-coaching jobs, and special teams coach Joe Judge's contract set to expire, Belichick's staff will have a much different look. The status of some other coaches on staff will be monitored as well. How Belichick fills those voids and fills out the staff, while catching up on the scouting process for the 2018 draft, will be critical.