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Final Power Ranking: 1
Preseason Power Ranking: 10
Biggest surprise: The idea of Tom Brady putting together yet another sterling campaign couldn't have been weird to any sane football fan before the season began. But how Brady went about it was amazing even by his standards. The Patriots' offense was prolific even though it went through a systemic transformation. No longer did the Patriots spread out their receivers and operate exclusively out of the shotgun. They preferred two-tight end sets and dumped their noted downfield threat, Randy Moss. Brady's supporting cast was comprised of undrafted running backs who'd been waived multiple times (BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead), two rookie tight ends (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez), a receiver recovering from reconstructive knee surgery (Wes Welker) and a receiver who couldn't make an impact for a losing team and was traded (Deion Branch).
Biggest disappointment: A loss to the New York Jets at the Meadowlands in Week 2 was forgivable. But getting destroyed by the Cleveland Browns 34-14? Totally unacceptable. The Browns, with two wins at the time, gained 404 total yards. The Patriots didn't hold a lead the entire game and left the North Coast humiliated. The Patriots weren't demoralized, though. The loss seemed to stoke their intensity. They haven't loss since, bouncing back the next week to dominate the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field and then defeat the Indianapolis Colts at home. The Patriots beat playoff-bound teams in five of their next seven games after losing in Cleveland.
Biggest need: The Patriots' offensive line had an impressive season. Even with star left guard Logan Mankins missing seven games with a contract dispute, right guard Stephen Neal on injured reserve with a shoulder injury, and right tackle Nick Kaczur out the entire season with back surgery, only three teams allowed fewer sacks. The Patriots also tied for 10th in average yards per carry. But the offensive line likely will need bolstering. It's getting older. Neal contemplated retirement last offseason. Mankins is thrilled to be winning now, but does he still harbor some of the bitterness that compelled him to make a public trade demand in June? He could be gone. Left tackle Matt Light also has an expiring contract.
Team MVP: Brady, quarterback. He led the NFL with a 111.0 passer rating, threw 36 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He broke a 19-year-old record for consecutive attempts without an interception, helping New England set the NFL record for fewest turnovers in a season.
A case for the defense: Brady was so remarkable that he made sure the Patriots kept winning despite their susceptible and inexperienced defense. Even in early December, they owned terrible defensive rankings despite standout contributions from nose tackle Vince Wilfork and inside linebacker Jerod Mayo. The Patriots were on pace to have one of the worst third-down defenses in NFL history. With rookie Devin McCourty and undrafted Kyle Arrington at cornerback, they gave up the most passing yards in the league. But the defense improved every week. While their overall rankings remained mired by earlier performances, Bill Belichick's defense surged toward the postseason, allowing seven or fewer points in four of their last five games and coming up with takeaways at critical times.