Top 5 Patriots storylines of 2013

The structure of the football season means that any given year can begin and end with euphoria or defeat, as the regular season most often concludes in late December, while the Super Bowl is held in early February. For the Patriots, the start of 2013 will be best remembered for a deflating defeat in the AFC Championship game, as the team looked primed to head to the Super Bowl for the second straight year. While any year brings ebbs-and-flows, an uncommon offseason followed, leading some to wonder what to make of the Patriots for the 2013 season. While it hasn't been easy, the Patriots have proven once again why they're among the model franchises in sports, continuing on the path of success. Below is a countdown of the year's most memorable moments, excluding the Aaron Hernandez arrest and release from the Patriots:

5. March 14: Welker departs in free agency. After a back-and-forth contract negotiation that spanned over multiple offseasons, things got to a point where it was clear the Patriots and slot receiver Wes Welker were not going to come to terms on a multi-year agreement. The Patriots presented Welker with a two-year package that was comparable to the one he signed in Denver, but the productive slot man ultimately decided to take the deal and play with Peyton Manning. A wildly popular player during his time in New England, he was received with a strong ovation and video tribute upon his return to Foxborough in November.

4. Feb. 25: Brady inks long-term pact. In a move that came from off-the-radar, word got out that quarterback Tom Brady, the centerpiece of the roster for over a decade, had agreed to terms on a new deal that would keep him in New England for three more seasons than his previous contract had drawn up. Brady’s deal checked in with an annual average salary of $9 million for the three new years, modest compensation for an elite quarterback, and it opened up extensive salary-cap flexibility for the Patriots in both 2013 and 2014.

3. Jan. 20: Pats blitzed by Ravens in AFC Championship Game. The Patriots played host to the AFC Championship game, but a rematch against a Baltimore team they had played (and lost to) earlier in the season ended their year on a down note. The Patriots offense was stymied in the red zone and the defense was unable to register a single quarterback hit on Joe Flacco. It was their first game without Rob Gronkowski following him re-breaking his forearm, and the Patriots offense was unable to keep up with a Baltimore team that would go on to win the Super Bowl.

2. Oct. 20, Dec. 8: The waiting game and return, then departure of Gronk. After multiple offseason surgeries, tight end Rob Gronkowski returned for a Week 7 matchup with the Jets, catalyzing the Patriots offense and helping them improve by nearly 11 points per game. Gronkowski rediscovered his old form, catching 39 passes in just six and a half games before leaving a Week 14 matchup with the Browns with a torn ACL and MCL, ending his season. The anticipation of his return this season was a primary storyline that will once again resurface as he readies for the 2014 season. The exact timetable for his recovery is not yet known.

1. Current: Resilient Pats fight on. Despite a litany of injuries, unusual offseason circumstances and a slow start from the offense, the Patriots have pressed on, showing a special resilience that has caught the attention of head coach Bill Belichick. Ending the regular season at 12-4 and atop the AFC East once again, the Pats have the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs. Season highlights include thrilling come-from-behind wins against the Saints, Broncos and Browns. They overcame second-half deficits, made clutch plays with the game on the line, and displayed a don’t-count-us-out mentality that bodes well as they prepare for another postseason run.