By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The 2017 season for the New England Patriots ended in most disappointing — and perplexing — fashion. They lost the Super Bowl, of course, and they did so without playing Malcolm Butler, who led the team in defensive snaps during the season.
It was odd.
Nevertheless, it happened, and the Patriots are on to 2018, where they hope to become the first team since the early ’90s Bills to reach the Super Bowl in three straight years. But while Bill Belichick and Co. make up for lost time in prepping next year’s roster, now is probably the best time for the rest of us to look back at the entirety of the 2017 season to recall some of the highest as well as the lowest points of the year.
HIGH: A Total Clown Show
While opening night didn’t go so well for the Patriots, it started with a lot of smiling faces invading Foxboro for one of the more unique moments in Boston sports history. Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy committed to handing out 70,000 towels depicting NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as a clown, and the mission was a success.
The towels marked the first official visit from Goodell after he launched the DeflateGate scandal in January of 2015 (he did briefly appear at a 2017 preseason game), and the message from Patriots fans was pretty clear.
Goodell’s visit itself was a bit underwhelming. He walked out of the tunnel in the southeast corner of Gillette Stadium and spoke with Chiefs owner Clark Hunt for a few minutes, absorbing only a smattering of boos and leaving before the Patriots unveiled their brand new Super Bowl banner. The home crowd never really got to fully let Goodell know their feelings about him with a hearty round of booing, but the towels made the message pretty clear.
LOW: Defensive Disaster Vs. Kansas City
Week 1 wasn’t too kind to the defending champs, as they opened their season in bizarre fashion by allowing Alex Smith and the Chiefs offense to carve them up to the tune of 537 yards and 42 points. When Smith is completing deep balls against your defense, you’re probably not having a great night.
The Patriots actually carried a 27-21 lead into the fourth quarter, behind three Mike Gillislee touchdowns. But the Chiefs scored 21 unanswered points to walk out of Foxboro with a 42-27 victory.
Perhaps we all should have seen that game as a sign of things to come. The season began by allowing 42 points and 537 yards of offense, and it ended by allowing 41 points and 538 yards of offense.
HIGH: Brady On Fire In September
Tom Brady may be the GOAT, but there were still some people who entered the season questioning how well he could play at age 40. In Weeks 2 and 3, he erased any and all doubt.
In two games — at New Orleans, home vs. Houston — Brady had one of the best two-game stretches of his entire career. He completed 55 of 74 passes (74.3 percent) for 825 yards, eight touchdowns, and no interceptions. His cumulative passer rating in those two games was 146.5. The Patriots won both games.
What stood out, too, in the Houston game was that Brady was able to deliver through all 60 minutes on what an extremely hot afternoon that had players nearly half Brady’s age gasping for air early. Brady completed a 25-yard touchdown strike to Brandin Cooks to cap off a 75-yard game-winning drive with 23 seconds left in the game.
It’s really a miracle that the Patriots came as close as they did to winning the Super Bowl, considering all of the serious injuries they suffered.
It started with Julian Edelman, who tore his knee in the preseason and missed the whole year. In a flash, the Patriots were without the man who led the team by huge margins in receptions, yards and targets in 2016 and was a key contributor in the Super Bowl LI win over the Falcons.
During the season, the Patriots lost Dont’a Hightower and Marcus Cannon, leaving them thin at two massively important positions. Chris Hogan also was in the midst of a career year when he suffered a shoulder injury that kept him off the field for seven of the Patriots’ final eight regular-season games.
The Patriots also lost special teamer Nate Ebner to injury midseason, and didn’t get a single snap out of their top two draft picks — Derek Rivers and Tony Garcia. Cornerback Cyrus Jones — the team’s top pick in 2016 — also missed his entire sophomore NFL season, while promising rookie linebacker Harvey Langi missed almost the entire year after getting into a serious car crash. Linebacker Shea McClellin missed the entire season as well due to concussions, and second-year receiver Malcolm Mitchell was unable to play at all due to knee issues. The Patriots also hoped to get contributions from second-year defensive tackle Vincent Valentine, but he missed the entire season as well.
That’s a lot of injuries. Each one hurt to varying degrees, but the cumulative effect — especially on defense — was a lack of depth that reared its head in the Super Bowl.
HIGH: Super Bowl Rematch
After blowing a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI, the Atlanta Falcons lost a lot of sleep. When they visited Foxboro eight months later, they were likely seeking some level of retribution. Though they could not have gotten back that Super Bowl, they could at least deliver a beatdown that made them feel better about their current state in the 2017 season.
Instead, the Falcons couldn’t even compete. The Patriots put forth their best defensive effort of the year, limiting the Falcons to just seven points. Tom Brady and Dion Lewis had efficient evenings to pace the offense. And the Falcons left so mystified that Julio Jones sorta-kinda insinuated that Bill Belichick is in charge of the weather. What a night.
LOW: Another Defensive Dud Vs. Carolina
The Patriots have always been one of the best home teams in the NFL during the Brady-Belichick era, so it was nothing short of stunning to see the team drop to 1-2 at home after Week 4. That loss was particularly painful for the team considering just how poorly the defense played.
The Patriots allowed a touchdown to Fozzy Whittaker where not one defensive player was even on the same side of the field as the running back:
And that was just one of several plays where Panthers were left completely uncovered. It was one of the worst-looking losses the Patriots have suffered at home, and it welcomed some doubt early in the season about the abilities of the New England defense and whether or not newcomer Stephon Gilmore could fit in to the unit.
HIGH (Literally): Back-To-Back Wins At Altitude
Before everyone was wondering why he benched Malcolm Butler for the entirety of the Super Bowl, everyone was lauding Bill Belichick for his genius decision to keep the team in a high altitude at the Air Force Academy for the week between the team’s games in Denver and in Mexico City. It was a strategy that seemed to pay off, as the Patriots looked far more prepared for the thin air of Mexico City when they wiped the floor with the Raiders in front of an international audience.
That thin air also helped Stephen Gostkowski set a Patriots franchise record with a successful 62-yard field goal before halftime. The kick might have been good from 75 yards:
The two-game stretch coming out of the bye was a great success for the Patriots, who have typically had their struggles in Denver. But Brady threw three touchdowns with no picks in a 41-16 romp over the Broncos before again throwing three touchdowns with no picks the following week in the 33-8 win over the Raiders.
LOW: Monday Night Football Loss
ESPN was likely very excited to showcase Tom Brady during his MVP season on prime-time television. Brady rewarded the network with his biggest stinker of the season.
Without Gronkowski on the field, and with the Dolphins having delivered several vicious hits on the QB just two weeks earlier, Brady was not himself on this Monday night. He underthrew Brandin Cooks and was intercepted by Xavien Howard on the Patriots’ opening drive, and he was later picked off again by Howard on a deep shot to Cooks. It was Brady’s only two-interception game of 2017, and his first in the regular season since December of 2015.
HIGH: The Unlikely Safety
It wasn’t the hugest play in the grand scheme of things, but it’s always nice when the special teams guys get their moment in the sun.
This one came when Chargers punt returner Travis Benjamin mishandled a ball and then complicated matters by running through his own end zone. He thought he could outrun the coverage unit, but he was quickly swarmed by Brandon King, Jonathan Jones, and Matthew Slater. They took him down in the end zone for a safety.
It was the first safety recorded on a punt return since 2003.
Considering the Patriots won 21-13 and had to defend a late L.A. drive, the points proved to be rather important.
LOW: Gronk Suspended, Concussed
Rob Gronkowski’s image as the fun-loving life of the party took a major hit when he delivered a late cheap shot on an unsuspecting Tre’Davious White in Week 13.
Frustrated with the officiating, Gronkowski directed that anger to the wrong place when he decided to hurl his body down on the Bills’ rookie cornerback, who was having a great season and had just intercepted Brady.
Gronkowski paid the price for the hit at the time, getting slapped with a one-game suspension.
A month later, it was Gronkowski who was on the receiving end of a concussion-causing hit. This one was delivered by Jaguars safety Barry Church in the AFC Championship Game, and it knocked Gronkowski out of the game. He was able to play — and play exceptionally — in the Super Bowl two weeks later, but he did so amid reports that he’ll now be contemplating an early retirement.
HIGH: Big Ben’s Big Blunder
Everyone remembers the Patriots’ win in Pittsburgh for the “controversial” call on Jesse James’ non-touchdown, even though it was a basic application of the rules.
But while the Patriots did get lucky that the Steelers’ tight end failed to secure a simple catch, the team did a lot to earn a hard-fought road win against its primary conference foe on that December afternoon in Pittsburgh.
Notably, Brady and Gronkowski were in a special zone, connecting on three straight receptions for 69 yards before Dion Lewis plunged into the end-zone for a late go-ahead score.
After Jordan Richards and the Patriots’ defense allowed JuJu Smith-Schuster to break a 69-yard catch-and-run on the ensuing possession, things looked dire for the Patriots. But then came Jones’ drop, after which the Steelers did not at all look prepared for the moment.
Ben Roethlisberger completed a pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey, but Malcolm Butler showed exceptional awareness to rush to the ball carrier to tackle him before he could get out of bounds. With the clock running and no timeouts in his pocket, Roethlisberger had no idea what to do. He ran a semi-halfway-sort-of-fake spike, and then tried to force a pass to Eli Rogers, who was swarmed by white jerseys in the end zone. The deflected pass came down into the arms of Duron Harmon, and the Patriots had themselves an unforgettable victory in Pittsburgh. With that, the Patriots had essentially sewn up home-field advantage for the playoffs.
LOW: Bubbling Tension Amid ‘Lingering Sadness’
It may not have registered on the DeflateGate or Spygate level of hysteria, but an ESPN story dropped prior to the start of the playoffs, and it did cast some controversy and unwanted attention upon the Patriots at the most important time of the season.
The story, written by Seth Wickersham, cited anonymous Patriots staffers who described an atmosphere of tension, as well as a possible breakup of the Patriots’ triumvirate of power in Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
While some of the story was a bit overdone — like the “lingering sadness” filling the hallways at Gillette Stadium — there was enough smoke in the report for many to believe there might be fire. It also shined a bright spotlight on the potentially contentious relationship between Belichick and Brady’s personal trainer, Alex Guerrero. The Patriots did a good job of minimizing the “distraction” that such a story can cause, but things were a bit hectic in Foxboro there in early January.
LOW: Brady’s Hand Emergency
Tom Brady suffered a freak injury to his throwing hand during a practice session prior to the AFC Championship Game. As soon as it happened, Brady’s first thought was that his season was over.
Fortunately for Brady, he somehow did not suffer tendon or ligament damage, despite his thumb reportedly getting bent back so far that it began gushing blood. He did require 10 stitches, but he was able to play with tape covering his wound, and his performance indicated no noticeable damage.
But for some time during the week of the AFC title game, Brady had serious doubts about whether he’d be able to play. Considering the chaos that would have ensued if Brian Hoyer had been thrust into that game in a year when Belichick traded Jimmy Garoppolo midseason, suffice it to say the head coach might have dodged a bullet thanks to his quarterback’s apparent invincibility.
HIGH: Title Game Comeback
Though the Jaguars may not be stocked with household names, they visited Gillette Stadium fully intent on beating the Patriots and earning a Super Bowl berth. And for 50 minutes, they looked like they were on course.
But, as Tom Brady generally likes to do, the quarterback saved his best for last. Facing the NFL’s best pass defense, Brady led the Patriots on two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter to erase a 10-point deficit and earn a trip to his eighth Super Bowl.
On the first touchdown drive, Brady accounted for all 93 yards, when he went 5-for-7. That included a 21-yard completion to Danny Amendola to convert a third-and-18.
Brady later got the ball with less than five minutes to play and the Jaguars holding on to a three-point lead. Following a 20-yard punt return by Amendola, Brady promptly went 3-for-3 for 24 yards and a touchdown — thrown to Amendola, of course — to give the Patriots the lead.
The Jaguars had a chance to drive for the lead, but Stephon Gilmore broke up a fourth-down pass to Dede Westbrook to seal the win.
It wasn’t a perfect game for the Patriots, but it had the perfect ending.
LOW: Brady’s Drop, Strip Sack
Tom Brady put forth arguably the greatest Super Bowl performance in history, throwing for 505 yards and three touchdowns without throwing an interception. But sports can be cruel, so it will be two negative plays involving Brady that will likely be remembered the most.
The first came early in the second quarter, with the Eagles leading 9-3. Danny Amendola received a pitch from James White on a reverse before looking up the field for his quarterback, who was streaking up the right sideline uncovered. Amendola threw on the run, putting it just at fingertip’s reach for Brady. The QB-turned-receiver couldn’t haul it in. It would have been a tough catch, for sure. But it’s one Brady really wishes he could have made.
The Patriots went for it on the ensuing fourth-and-5, but Brady threw incomplete to Gronkowski. The Eagles quickly drove down the field to score a touchdown and stretch their lead to 15-3.
Yet the Patriots appeared to still very much be in position to win the game, even after the Eagles took a 38-33 lead with 2:21 left to play. Brady was going to lead the Patriots down the field to score, because that’s what Brady always does in these moments. But for the first time all night, the Eagles got to Brady. Brandon Graham muscled his way through right guard Shaq Mason and jarred the ball loose from Brady just milliseconds before the quarterback began throwing the football. Derek Barnett grabbed the loose ball, and the Patriots’ chances of winning dropped from 35 percent to 2 percent in the blink of an eye.
HIGH: Brady’s Postseason Milestones
For this particular season, they don’t mean much. But Brady added to his gaudy postseason stats by throwing for 1,132 yards, eight touchdowns, and zero interceptions in his three games played.
You can basically look at any postseason passing record, and Brady’s name will be at the top of the list. His 10,226 postseason passing yards rank first, well ahead of Peyton Manning, who ranks second with 7,339. Brady has 14 postseason games with 300 passing yards, five more than second-place Manning. Brady passed Kurt Warner with his fourth Super Bowl with 300 or more passing yards, and he recorded his 23rd postseason game with multiple touchdown passes. Brett Favre ranks second with 15.
It gets stated quite often, but Brady is 40. Performing that well at that age from September through February is an unprecedented achievement. Of course, Brady being Brady, he wants more. And the quarterback did enough in 2017 to make a similar performance in 2018 — likely with Edelman and Gronkowski — seem realistic.
HIGH: The Rob Gronkowski Drive
Losing the Super Bowl was a real downer for everyone involved with the Patriots, but especially for Rob Gronkowski. The loss cost him what really would have been the signature moment of his Hall of Fame career.
Much like he did during that game-winning drive in Pittsburgh, Rob Gronkowski came out of halftime of Super Bowl LII and simply decided that nobody was going to be able to cover him.
He caught a 15-yard out on second-and-10 and cut it upfield for a gain of 25. On the next play, he ran a fade up the right sideline, caught the ball at its highest point in tight man coverage, and hauled it in for 24 yards. Three plays later on a third-and-6, Gronkowski beat man coverage with a comeback route. He caught the pass and then carried Corey Graham on his back to turn it into a 14-yard gain.
Then, after a short run by James White, Gronkowski ran an in-cut in the end zone and caught a bullet from Brady for a five-yard touchdown.
The drive was just pure dominance, with Gronkowski accounting for 68 of the drive’s 75 yards. And, combined with his touchdown in the fourth quarter which gave the Patriots their first lead of the game, it would have gone down as a historic moment.
LOW: Malcolm Butler Didn’t Play
This one just won’t ever make sense, and it’s how we’ll all remember Super Bowl LII. Considering Jordan Richards and Johnson Bademosi struggled when given opportunities to play, and considering just one more third-down stop likely would have made the difference in the game, Belichick’s decision to staple Butler to the sidelines will leave the ultimate “What If?” for New England when contemplating how the 2017 season could have — and should have — ended.