BOSTON (CBS) – The Patriots came up two wins shy of their ultimate goal, but head coach Bill Belichick is still proud of his players for all the adversity they battled throughout the 2013 season.
“I’m proud of the team. I’m proud to be their coach. I thought they played hard all year,” Belichick said following New England’s 26-16 loss to the Broncos in the AFC Championship game. “They played competitively every single week. Some weeks, they played better than others, but there was never a lack of effort or toughness. Everybody trying to do their best, and I totally respect the team for that and what they did. I’m proud to be their coach.”
You can’t blame Belichick for being proud of his team, even following a disappointing end to the season.
The 2013 season was a trying one for New England, both on and off the field. Wes Welker left for Denver. Aaron Hernandez was arrested for murder. No one really knew when, or whether, tight end Rob Gronkowski would make his way back from numerous surgeries.
And that was just the off-season. Once the season got under way, the team suffered season-ending injuries to key players Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Tommy Kelly and, after playing in seven games following his long-awaited return, Gronkowski once again.
But there would be no folding, no quitting. The defense played the “next man up” mentality to near perfection, as rookies and free agents off the street stepped in to fill the void when a star player went down. On offense, Julian Edelman had a career year, taking over Welker’s role, and when Gronk went down late in the season the Pats changed their tune and became focused more on the run.
All of that led to a 12-4 campaign, a first-round bye, and the Patriots finding themselves in their third straight AFC title game. It was an outcome not many saw when Wilfork went down in Week 4, and even fewer when Gronkowski left the field in Week 14 against Cleveland.
But there they were, fighting for a trip to the Super Bowl.
On Sunday, the Patriots weren’t at their best. They were far from it, and their team-wide hiccups on the field came at the worst possible time. The Broncos completely outplayed them on both sides of the ball, and now they’ll be the ones competing for a Super Bowl title in two weeks.
The Patriots won’t use injuries as an excuse. They didn’t all season, and won’t start now that their run is over. But even with the loss, they should be proud of what they accomplished as a team.
“We fought through a lot of adversity, a lot of ups and downs. It’s just unfortunate it had to end this way. It’s not the way we wanted to,” Edelman said after the loss. “It’s a pretty special group. Everyone fights until the very end. It just didn’t go our way and (the Broncos) flat-out beat us today.”
“I’m proud of this team and what we were able to accomplish this year with all the adversity we faced,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said. “To make it this far, it says a lot about our football team.”
While they lost in their biggest game of the season, All Pro guard Logan Mankins put it best just moments after the loss.
“You’re always proud of your team. Someone once asked me if I would rather not get to this point than lose it. I’ll take these games every year,” he said. “We’ll come out every year trying to get here. If we lose, we lose, but we gave it our best.”