The New England Patriots' offense was as dominant as ever in 2012, setting an NFL record for number of first downs, leading the league in both points and yards and ranking at or near the top of every drive stat that Football Outsiders tracks.
But they were held to a season-low 13 points in the AFC Championship, once again ending their season and leaving everyone scratching their heads. How can an offense that dominates nearly every statistical category consistently come up short in their biggest games of the season?
The Patriots have been dispatched from the playoffs for the last three seasons scoring their lowest point totals of the year, and that doesn't include the too-late touchdown against the Jets in 2010 with mere seconds left.
Sure, some great defenses played a part in that, but if the Patriots are to ever hoist the Lombardi Trophy again, they're going to have to figure out how to execute one of their brutally efficient offensive onslaughts in championship games.
Let's take a look back at the 2012 offense, and figure out what can be done to take it to the next level, especially when it comes to playing the best teams in the playoffs.
Injuries Kill The 2012 Plan
Coming out of training camp, the Patriots appeared committed to running their two tight end offense the majority of the time. With Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, they could shift seamlessly between power run or spread and attack the defense's weakness hard and fast.
In theory it seemed like exactly what they needed after seeing their ground game unable to take advantage of a the lighter Giants "NASCAR" front in the Super Bowl, but injuries derailed the plan early and often.
The Patriots only ended up running half their snaps in the two tight end formation in 2012, though with a healthy Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez for every game it would've been a lot more. Instead, they became more reliant on the three receiver set that featured too much of slowing veteran Deion Branch, the average Michael Hoomanwanui and Daniel Fells.
Without Gronkowski, Hernandez and Julian Edelman for large stretches of the season, the Patriots were forced to get by with with significantly less talent and versatility.
The loss of Gronkowski also severely impacted the run game. The Pats had a 100-yard rusher four times in the ten games before Gronk was injured, but did not have another one afterwards.
Just once did a back even break 85 yards.
Injuries can never be an excuse, all teams have to overcome them and plenty of teams were hit worse, but there's no question the Patriots were never fully able to implement the offense they wanted in 2012.
They had the right plan though, and with Gronk, Hernandez and a full stable of young running backs they should be primed to try and execute it again in 2013.
Free Agency Could Force Evolution
Perhaps the most controversial thing about the Patriots offense in 2012 was how it started with Julian Edelman getting more playing time than Wes Welker in the first game of the season. It set off a firestorm of speculation that the Patriots were phasing Welker out, but all that talk was moot once Aaron Hernandez went down in Week 2 and the Patriots were forced to re-involve Welker.
Welker would go on to become the first player in NFL history with five seasons of 100 or more catches, finishing up with 118, and not missing a game. He remains uncoverable and in his prime.
With Welker slated for free agency once again this offseason, it puts the Patriots at a crossroads, and they must consider if it's time for the offense to evolve in a new direction. Can Welker continue at this rate? And when will all those big hits really start catching up to him?
They'll have to invest a significant amount of money in him, and will have to seriously consider just how valuable and durable Welker will be in 2014 and 2015.
Fellow free agent Danny Woodhead had the second most targets on third down with less than half of Welker's (21). Woodhead emerged in 2012 as the most trusted back in pass-heavy games.
Welker and Woodhead also represent the two players with the second and third most offensive touches in 2012 respectively.
The impact of losing two of their top three targets could be significant. Throw in free agent Julian Edelman and it's clear the Patriots have somewhat of a blank canvas this offseason to remake a large portion of their receiver corps, along with their primary spread offense personnel, if they so choose.
They'd have to heavily weigh how good Shane Vereen, Jeff Demps and Julian Edelman are.
But there's something else to consider...
Could the Blitzkrieg Survive ?
The signature characteristic of the 2012 Patriots offense was how they could run the no huddle at an incredible pace, but it was Tom Brady's trust in his veteran weapons that made it possible.
The Patriots went no huddle this season for 291 snaps of 1200 total during the regular season, for a total of 24.1 percent. These were broken down by a balanced 149 runs and 142 passes from the no huddle.
But could they continue to run the no huddle so efficiently without Welker, Woodhead, Edelman and even Deion Branch? Brandon Lloyd was the closest thing to a true X-receiver the Patriots have had since Randy Moss, but he was often not on the same page as Brady.
Couple Lloyd with a new receiver, even if it's Edelman, and it's doubtful the Patriots would be as confident running their one word offense nearly a quarter of the time.
But as effective as the "death by a thousand cuts" offense can be, even at breakneck speed, it can be delicate and prone to getting knocked off track and out of rhythm as it was against the Ravens in the AFC Championship.
One scout had this to say to WEEI.com:
The Patriots do have fast wide receivers, but they are small, and require Brady to be more accurate on his deeper throws. And because of their size, they aren’t consistent vertical threats. What they need is a wide receiver who is a vertical threat, but is also big enough to be physical in press coverage.
It's time for the Patriots to look for more size and explosion from their passing game, as they did by turning over the running game from Benjarvus Green-Ellis to Stevan Ridley last offseason. This was also likely the thought behind inserting Edelman for Welker early in the 2012 season, and perhaps the Patriots will revisit the idea, especially if the economics of a new Welker deal cannot be figured out.
Everyone can marvel at how Tom Brady can pick a defense apart with short passes, but many of the better defenses have found ways to stop that, or at least contain it. Methodical dink and dunk can get it done against most NFL teams, but by not truly challenging all dimensions of the defense the Patriots will continue to be stymied by teams that have the know-how and personnel to disguise and clog the middle of the field.
Health and Explosiveness Are the Keys
The Patriots offense can be frustrating given their penchant for going stale in the biggest moments over the past few seasons, but they had the right plan in place going into 2012 to fix some of their problems. If they can stay healthy at the key spots they should be able to see that plan to fruition.
The biggest step was committing themselves to running the ball more, and the ground game should only continue to improve, especially with the additions of Jake Ballard, whom they really could've used for his run blocking late this year, and Jeff Demps, an explosive wild card who has been getting back into football shape this past season.
Even without a proverbial "deep threat," a potent running game down the stretch would have made a huge difference against the teams that want to play nickel and primarily defend the pass like the Ravens did.
The Broncos had a similar plan in October when Gronkowski was healthy and they got torched to the tune of 251 yards rushing.
The Patriots already have better pieces in place for 2013 to continue that trend, it's just a matter of keeping them on the field.
Regardless of Wes Welker's fate, the Patriots have enough weapons to continue to attack the middle of the field. It might not be as effective without Welker, but that could open up the chance for another weapon to present a new and different challenge for opposing defenses.
"Deep threat" is an oversimplification, but it's simple geometry that the best offense is one that challenges all levels of a defense, and that includes outside the numbers. The Patriots need to expand their range of attack to truly see this offense hit its potential.
With or without any of their free agents, the Patriots are in position to build off what they started in 2012, and should once again be one of the top offenses in the NFL.
It will just come down to being one of the top offenses in the post-season as well.