Grading the Patriots' intriguing season; looking ahead to Gronk, more

ATLANTA – The New England Patriots ended the season with a 13-3 win over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII to finish the season at 14-5. Here is a recap of 2018 and what’s next:

Season grade: Perfect. The bar has been raised so high in New England that any season not ending in a Super Bowl championship is viewed as a disappointment of sorts. No other team in the NFL is held to such a standard. When an 11-5 regular season is considered a “down” year, and one turns on local sports talk radio entering the playoffs to hear, “Something just doesn’t seem right with this team,” it’s a reminder New England is somewhat of an alternative football universe. But in the end, the way the Patriots made a spirited charge to the Super Bowl breathes new life into the organization as it now transitions to a 20th year with Bill Belichick as coach and Tom Brady at quarterback. It is a credit to the resilience of the organization to play its best football in the final five games of the season. In the big picture, safety/captain Devin McCourty noted after a Dec. 16 loss in Pittsburgh that players knew they were running out of time. A lack of explosive weapons around the 41-year-old Brady led the Patriots to turn more toward the running game late in the season, which was a critical switch.

Season in review: The Patriots were 9-0 at home and 4-5 on the road, with a final-play 69-yard meltdown in Miami on Dec. 9 their biggest miscue of the year. This marked the first year since 2009 that the team had a losing record on the road under Belichick. The defense, in particular, had played much better at home but a clutch performance in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City -- in which Tyreek Hill was held to one catch, and tight end Travis Kelce was negated for long stretches of the action -- showed the unit saved some of its best work for when it counted most. Then came an absolute gem of an effort by the D in Super Bowl LIII. The Patriots developed a collective chip on their shoulder as the season progressed, with Brady, in particular, fueled by those who called him too old. Asked what he liked most about the Patriots entering the playoffs, he said it was how they had been “counted out a few times and came back with a lot of resolve.” Playing without suspended receiver Julian Edelman for the first four games of the season, and then getting receiver Josh Gordon up to speed after acquiring him in a mid-September trade, contributed to some of the offensive struggles. And then once Gordon did find a rhythm in New England, he was suspended indefinitely in late December for violating the terms of his conditional reinstatement under the NFL's drug policy.

He said it: “We're still here! We're still here! We're still here!" Brady, to a crowd of approximately 35,000 at the team's Super Bowl sendoff rally before traveling to Atlanta.

Offseason questions:

Will Rob Gronkowski retire? The 29-year-old tight end had said immediately after Super Bowl LII that he would consider his football future, and then said after Super Bowl LIII that he would take a few weeks before making his decision. Gronkowski’s production dipped after an offseason in which he didn’t take part in the voluntary workout program for the first time, and then he battled ankle and back injuries throughout parts of the year. But while he wasn’t at his previous standard, he was still a difference-maker at times, especially in the AFC Championship Game and in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIII. His blocking was impressive too. If Gronkowski does elect to return, he is due a base salary of $9 million.

Will Brady sign an extension? The Patriots and Brady have traditionally extended his contract with two years remaining, but that wasn’t the case last offseason, which sets up something a bit different: Brady is entering the final year of his contract in 2019. An extension seems like a strong possibility, as the 41-year-old Brady is still playing at a high level. And it would be a win-win scenario: Brady is currently set to count $27 million against the salary cap, which would be lowered with an extension, while at the same time giving him more guaranteed/upfront money. But if the sides can’t reach an agreement, Brady would enter the final year of his contract, which could put more urgency on developing his heir apparent.

Any progress on finding a QB of the future? When the Patriots traded Jimmy Garoppolo to the 49ers in October 2017, it forced a reset of their quarterback plans for life after Brady, as Brady essentially outlasted their succession plan. They drafted LSU’s Danny Etling in the seventh round of the 2018 draft and he spent his rookie season on the practice squad. While the odds seem longer that he’s the long-term answer, the possibility will come into sharper focus in spring practices and into 2019 training camp/preseason. Meanwhile, the Patriots have significant draft capital – a first-round pick, two second-rounders, and three third-rounders (two of which are projected compensatory picks) -- if they want to make an aggressive move in this year’s draft. This year’s quarterback class, however, isn’t considered especially strong by draft analysts.