With the New England Patriots currently enjoying their first-round bye as they prepare for the playoffs, now is a good time to reflect back on the performances of the players who helped the team earn the second seed in the AFC.
Some players have emerged as quality players, while other have taken a step back.
Here are grades for each starter's 2012 regular-season performances.
Key Stats: Eight sacks, five forced fumbles
Plain and simple: Rob Ninkovich is a playmaker.
With a career-high eight sacks and five forced fumbles, Nink hung up his best season as a pro in 2012.
The former strong-side linebacker didn't just have success getting to the quarterback, he also developed a knack for making huge plays when the team needed it most, such as his game-winning strip-sack of Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez in an overtime show own.
At 6'2'', 260 pounds, Ninkovich isn't the most physically overwhelming defensive end, but he plays with great intensity, refined technique and a motor that just doesn't quit.
Key Stats: Six sacks, four forced fumbles, five pass deflections
Prior to an ankle injury, Chandler Jones was well on his way to Defensive Rookie of the Year, having tallied six sacks in just eight games.
While the ankle caused him to miss some time and limited his ability a bit, Jones has recently started to heat up again.
He didn't register a sack in the season finale against the Miami Dolphins, but he did bring consistent pressure that helped his teammates total a season-best seven sacks in their 28-0 victory over their divisional foes.
Key Stats: Three sacks, four fumble recoveries
Vince Wilfork may not awe fans with his statistics, but his impact on the field can't be measured by numbers.
He consistently takes on double-teams and allows his young linebackers behind him to make big plays.
In the [Pro Bowl] fan voting, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork was well behind Baltimore's Haloti Ngata and Cincinnati's Geno Atkins, but he was ultimately named a starter. That is a reflection that Wilfork has great respect among fellow players as well as coaches, as they account for the final two-thirds of the vote.
He's a fearless leader of a young crew and quite frankly is one of the best defensive tackles in football today.
Key Stats: 25 tackles, 1.5 sacks
Kyle Love usually gets the job done against the run but rarely pushes the pocket.
This is likely why Brandon Deaderick—who brings a lot more to the table in terms of pass rush—has been getting the start alongside Wilfork as of late.
Love has been good, but not great (nor very good for that matter).
Brandon Deaderick may be the answer for the Patriots in terms of an interior pass rush, and as previously mentioned, he has recently taken the starting job next to Vince Wilfork from Kyle Love.
A former defensive end, Deaderick can bring a nice rush from the interior but can also hold up against the run, and he appears to be getting better in both categories.
Key Stats: 60 tackles, four sacks
As a rookie, Dont'a Hightower has certainly had his ups and downs, but there is no doubt that he is a premier young talent.
Four sacks and 60 tackles as a rookie?
Not too shabby, especially considering he missed two games.
He stills needs to improve in coverage, but his two pass breakups towards the end of the season suggest that he's getting better.
Through and through, Hightower looks like an integral part of the Patriots defense heading forward.
Key Stats: 92 tackles, five forced fumbles
Brandon Spikes has really turned into a nice playmaker for New England's defense and may be one of the best run-stuffing middle linebackers in the NFL.
He struggles in coverage at times but his intensity and energy on the field make up for some of those coverage shortcomings.
Most teams would love to have a guy like Spikes to lay down the hammer in the middle of their defense.
Key Stats: 147 tackles, three sacks, four forced fumbles, one interception
Jerod Mayo was elected to his second Pro Bowl this year after missing out on the accolade last season.
His teammate, Vince Wilfork, has noticed a heightened level of play from the linebacker (per Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston):
His game has always been at a high level. This year, I think he really came out and his game just sky-rocketed to a whole [other] level...There's not a doubt in my mind that he's one of the best linebackers in the game.
Mayo is a rare talent that excels at everything you'd ask a linebacker to do.
He can defend the run, he can cover, he can blitz and as a perennial team captain, he can lead his teammates.
Key Stats: Five interceptions, 13 pass deflections, three forced fumbles
After suffering a bit of a sophomore slump in 2011, Devin McCourty—who leads the AFC in interceptions with five—has really bounced back nicely in 2012.
His improvements are likely a result of his switch from cornerback to free safety, where he has really showcased his range and ball skills.
Key Stats: Three interceptions, two forced fumbles
Steve Gregory's first year in New England has been far from perfect, but he's made a few big plays for the team and seems to be a steadying presence in the secondary.
Not to mention that his ability to play both strong and free safety is a nice fit in New England's system—they often ask their safeties to play both positions.
Sometimes secondaries just need a guy that is going to do the right thing, and Gregory seems to fit that role.
Key Stats: Two interceptions
Patrick Chung almost doesn't deserve to be on this list because he hasn't been a true starter on this defense since the beginning of the season.
The Patriots favor the Devin McCourty/Steve Gregory duo at safety, who are both much better in coverage than Chung.
However, because of the recent injuries to Alfonzo Dennard and Aqib Talib, the Patriots have had to move McCourty back to cornerback, which allowed Chung to get some starts.
He's looked better and excels against the run but still hasn't developed into the top-tier safety the Patriots hoped for when they drafted him early in the second round in 2009.
Key Stats: One interception, two pass deflections, one fumble recovery (as a Patriot)
Aqib Talib may not be a pure shutdown corner, but he's still very good.
The presence of Talib not only allows the Patriots to trust their coverage more and dial up blitzes more often, but also allows them to move Devin McCourty to free safety—a position that he excels at.
The Patriots finally look like they have a defense that could help win a championship, and that is partially due to the addition of Talib.
Key Stats: Three interceptions, seven pass deflections
Former Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Alfonzo Dennard has really come along nicely and looks like a long-term starter in the Patriots defense after unseating Kyle Arrington for the job.
He does well in man coverage, and though a bit undersized at 5'10'', he has a thick frame that allows him to be physical at the line of scrimmage.
For a seventh-round draft pick, you really couldn't ask for more.
Key Stats: 11 pass deflections
Kyle Arrington was benched from the right cornerback spot in favor of rookie Alfonzo Dennard earlier in the season, but he is still the "starting" slot corner when everyone is healthy and the next option after Dennard on the depth chart.
Anyone with eyes can see that Arrington is clearly a better slot corner than an outside corner.
When Arrington was on the outside at the start of the season, it was a nightmare at times, but when he's limited to just the slot, he seems to play better.
It's also worth mentioning that Arrington has come on a bit at the right cornerback spot as of late while filling in for an injured Dennard.
Key Stats: 118 catches, 1,354 yards, six touchdowns
Since the day he put a Patriots jersey on, Wes Welker has been one of the most productive and consistent wide receivers in the game.
In fact, this season Welker become the first player in NFL history with five seasons of at least 100 catches and also broke Jerry Rice's record of most games with 10 or more catches with 18.
Welker had another remarkable season in 2012 and is starting to look like a surefire future Hall of Famer.
Key Stats: 74 catches, 911 yards, four touchdowns
The naysayers will say that Brandon Lloyd underperformed as a Patriot, but those are likely the people who expected him to be something he wasn't (cough, Randy Moss, cough).
What fans should have expected was an upgraded version of Deion Branch, and that's exactly what they got.
Lloyd had over 20 catches and over 200 yards more than Deion Branch did in 2011.
Lloyd had some ups and down, but he did what he was supposed to.
Key Stats: 55 catches, 790 yards, 11 touchdowns
Despite missing five games after breaking his forearm, Rob Gronkowski still ranked fourth in touchdown receptions this season and was named a starter in this year's Pro Bowl.
Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston recently shared his thoughts on Gronkowski's 2012 season, writing:
A repeat performance of Gronkowski's 2011 season was a tall order; after all, it was the greatest statistical season in NFL history by a tight end, but the third-year player still played at a dominant level in 2012 when he was on the field, and is the Patriots' most dangerous receiver in the passing game.
Gronk is still the best tight end in the game.
Key Stats: 51 catches, 483 yards, five touchdowns
After spraining his ankle in Week 2, Aaron Hernandez missed a total of six games and has yet to return to 100 percent.
The third-year star tight end knows that he's still working through some things (per Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald):
I’ve just got to keep improving every week and get back to myself...I missed a lot of football, so I’ve just got to keep improving, keep working hard during the week and have to perform on Sundays.
Despite operating at less than full health, Hernandez is still one of the Patriots' best playmakers and an important part of the offense.
The injury isn't his fault, and he's still giving it his all.
Key Stats: 1,263 yards, 12 touchdowns, 82 rushing first downs
Second-year running back Stevan Ridley led the way for the Patriots seventh-ranked rushing attack this season.
His five fumbles this season are the only reason for not receiving the full "A" here.
Key Stats: 301 rushing yards, 40 catches, 446 receiving yards, seven touchdowns
Danny Woodhead isn't exactly a starter, but he's close enough.
Woodhead has emerged as one of the most clutch players on the team, particularly on third down, which speaks to Tom Brady's trust in him.
Woodhead seems to play his best when the team needs him the most.
Key Stats: 4,827 passing yards, 34 touchdowns, eight interceptions
Mike Sando of ESPN's NFC West Blog summed up Tom Brady's season nicely in his recent MVP Watch piece, writing:
[Brady] threw 20 touchdown passes without an interception when opponents rushed him with five or more defenders. The Patriots led the NFL in points per game (34.8), point margin per game (plus-14.1), red zone efficiency (70 percent), third-down conversion rate (48.7) and interception rate (1.4). Brady made it all possible.
Brady played at an extremely high level throughout the 2012 season, as he usually does.
This grade for one of the best to ever play the position should come as no surprise.
Tom Brady recently told the media what he thought of Ryan Wendell's season (per Field Yates of ESPNBoston), saying:
He's done a great job...He's really done a great job since he's got here. He's fought for his opportunity and then once when he got it this year, he took advantage, has been healthy and durable and consistent...Playing center on our team, it's not easy with the amount of calls and adjustments that we have both from the communication that I have with him and then he relays on to the rest of the offensive linemen..He's done a great job.
Wendell may not be a Pro Bowler, but he gets the job done.
You don't hear Wendell's name much when watching Patriots game, which, for an offensive lineman, is almost always a good thing.
Logan Mankins was named to his fifth Pro Bowl recently, but he really hasn't had his typical top-notch season, mostly due to a nagging ankle injury.
However, he's still a hard-nosed guard who brings it on every play.
A less-than-100 percent Mankins is still better than most guards in the NFL.
Dan Connolly has been solid in terms of run-blocking and pass protection this season.
He's been fighting back and head injuries for most of the season, so it hasn't all been perfect, but by and large he got the job done.
For a good portion of this season, Sebastian Vollmer was probably the best right tackle in football.
At the halfway point of the season, Pro Football Focus chose Vollmer as their right tackle selection for its Midseason All-Pro Team picks, pointing out that “he’s performed admirably for New England in giving up just one sack, one hit and 12 hurries in eight games.”
If not for the return of a nagging back and knee injury that held him back a bit, Vollmer probably would have continued his dominance in the second half of the season.
Nate Solder has made the transition from longtime Patriots left tackle Matt Light virtually seamless.
Solder has gone up against some of the league's best pass-rushers this season, including Von Miller, Cameron Wake, Aldon Smith and Chris Clemons and has held his own.
He's not quite at that elite status yet, but the arrow is pointing in that direction.
Matthew Slater might be the best gunner in the NFL right now and has deservedly been selected to his second Pro Bowl in two seasons.
Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston opined on the subject recently, writing:
Two Pro Bowls in a row for special teamer Matthew Slater. Similar to Wilfork, he was in fourth place when the fan vote closed, but leaped to the No. 1 spot after player and coach voting. There is only one special teamer selected, which further highlights how Slater is viewed.
Slater may not grab headlines like his Patriots counterparts, but he is truly a special player.
Key Stats: 82.9 percent field-goal success rate
Despite a pretty good field-goal success rate, the 2012 season hasn't been kind to former Pro Bowl kicker Stephen Gostkowski.
We've seen Gostkowski miss a lot of kicks this season that he usually makes, including a potential game-winner against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2 that, had he made, would have the Patriots sitting on the No. 1 seed rather than the No. 2 heading into the playoffs.
Key Stats: 28 kicks inside the 20
Zoltan Mesko quietly had his best season as a pro in 2012 with a career-high 28 kicks inside the 20-yard line and six touchbacks.