Things don't always go exactly as expected.
That has been the common theme for the New England Patriots this season. Just when you thought there had been a changing of the guard, and the defense was going to carry the team through the season, one injury after another changed the plan. Just when it seemed like the offense had found it's groove, one key injury alone shook the offense to its core.
It's become a tradition to make some predictions before each season, and with the regular season in the rearview mirror, now seems like a good time to revisit those predictions and see whether I was right or wrong on my idea of what the Patriots would look like this season.
So, here's a look back, with thoughts on how things transpired.
What I Said: "Let's say, conservatively, the Patriots wait until Week 5 to bring him back. That's October 6, and there will be 12 games remaining on the schedule. Allow a one-game cushion for any potential injury Gronkowski may suffer during the season, and it seems reasonable he will play 11 or more games this year."
What Happened: The Patriots were even more conservative than I was, waiting until Week 7 before bringing Gronkowski back into the lineup. As a result, my prediction was doomed from the start, as Gronkowski would have maxed out at 10 games on the season. Then, of course, his ACL injury happened, which meant he maxed out at seven games.
Once again, a Gronkowski injury is one of the top storylines for the Patriots heading into the offseason. The Patriots may be in the market for a tight end, depending on when they expect him to return and how effective they expect him to be when he returns.
What I Said: "Chandler Jones got off to a red-hot start to the 2012 season, logging six sacks in the first eight games. He suffered an ankle injury in the 10th game of the season, though, and wasn't the same player from that point on. Now that Jones has had a full offseason to recover from the injury, he should be ready to return to form."
What Happened: Jones beat my expectations, crushing quarterbacks 11.5 times. That was the most of any Patriots defender this year, and he became the first Patriots defender to log more than 10 sacks since Mike Vrabel in 2007.
The Patriots were in search of a solid pass-rushing defensive end for a long time, and Jones has finally given them the presence they were missing. It's remarkable that he was able to log that many sacks, given the multiple injuries that ripped the defensive line to shreds during the season.
What I Said: "Over the past few years, the Patriots have made it a habit to lock up their biggest free agents before they hit the open market (save for Wes Welker)...Bill Belichick has always held Devin McCourty in high regard, and it wouldn't come as a shock for the Patriots to get a deal done for their starting safety before it becomes a problem."
What Happened: Well, the Patriots did sign a key upcoming free-agent to a new contract, but McCourty wasn't the target. Instead, they went with defensive end Rob Ninkovich on a three-year extension. As a result, McCourty is one of the Patriots' most important upcoming free agents, though his contract doesn't expire until 2015. Still, with an All-Pro selection in 2013 and the status as an emerging young free safety, McCourty should be getting a nice payday when his time comes to hit free agency.
Edit: Some incorrect information was provided here initially, on Devin McCourty's Pro Bowl selection and contract expiration date. That information has since been corrected.
What I Said: "Danny Amendola is the best receiver on the roster, but if the Patriots offense is working the way it should, no one player should be the focal point...Brady may target Amendola frequently in the early part of the season if the other receivers are slow to acclimate to the offense. But as Brady becomes more comfortable with his new receivers, the ball will be spread around a bit more."
What Happened: This prediction was unfair to file in the "bold" category, given Amendola's injury history and the relative certainty that he wouldn't play a full 16 games. It's hard to hit 100 receptions in a full 16-game season, much one shortened by four games due to injuries.
Amendola finished with 54 catches, which would have fallen short even if he had played the entire season. Instead, it was Julian Edelman who became a favorite target for Brady, as he finished with 105 receptions on the season.
Regardless of the player filling the void, the absence of slot receiver Wes Welker was not the reason for the Patriots' shortcomings on offense at any point in the season.
What I Said: "Vereen certainly doesn't lack for running ability, but it looks like he'll have a lot of opportunities to contribute big plays in the passing game. If that's the case, he could end up filling a Darren Sproles-type role for the Patriots."
What Happened: Final tab: 208 rushing yards, 427 receiving yards. Vereen was only available to the Patriots for eight games this season, so it's scary to think what he might have accomplished with a full complement of 16 games.
Still, the Patriots got exactly what they wanted to get out of Vereen, moving him around to different spots on the field to get him in favorable matchups. Brady feasted on those matchups nearly every time Vereen was in the lineup, and against the Cleveland Browns, Vereen set a Patriots running back record for receptions (12) and receiving yards (153) in a game.
His contributions in both the passing and running games will be vital to the Patriots in the playoffs and in future seasons.
What I Said: "Rookie cornerback Logan Ryan has improved throughout the offseason and earned the job as the fifth cornerback over Ras-I Dowling. Ryan earned praise from Bill Belichick for his versatility and for improving on his technique, recognition and communication. For now, it looks like he's primed for a role in the team's nickel package. But if either Talib or Dennard misses time, it may not be long before the Patriots insert Ryan into the starting lineup."
What Happened: Injuries to Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard left the Patriots thin at cornerback at times this season, thrusting Ryan into the mix for seven starts. Ryan, however, was equal to the challenge. He ended up being one of the pleasant surprises of the Patriots' season and finished with five interceptions, 10 passes defensed and 1.5 sacks.
The Patriots have a big decision upcoming with Talib, who is set to hit the open market this offseason, and the emergence of the Rutgers rookie may give the front office some confidence if it decides to let Talib walk.
What I Said: "They may give up yards in bunches, but they have usually been much better in a more important area: the scoreboard. This may not be such a bold prediction, given the fact that the Patriots defense has actually ranked in the top 10 in scoring in nine of Belichick's 13 seasons as head coach. They ranked ninth in 2012...With so much continuity on defense, the Patriots should improve on their totals from a year ago and still be a hard defense to score against."
What Happened: The Patriots finished exactly 10th, making me right.
The defense was the strength of the team early in the season while the offense struggled, but they slipped a bit as the pieces fell off one by one. They ranked seventh in scoring defense headed into their bye week, but gave up 24 points or more in their next five games. Fortunately for the Patriots, the offense found its stride before that point, so they were able to cover for the defense.
That may have to be the case in the playoffs if the Patriots are going to make a run for the Super Bowl.
What I Said: "The Patriots have lacked a true weapon at kick returner since cornerback Ellis Hobbs left the team in 2009...At 6'0" and 250 pounds, Blount is about as far from a prototypical kickoff returner as it gets. Perhaps the Patriots are hoping he can simply bulldoze his way to the end zone, but Blount may not be completely futile as a returner. He took his lone preseason return for 27 yards...[Josh] Boyce could be a surprise home run threat as a kickoff returner, but the Patriots' recent lack of success returning kicks leads to doubt."
What Happened: Oh, man, LeGarrette Blount nearly proved me wrong—twice—with big returns against the Buffalo Bills. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for him, he came up just short.
Out of 39 total returns, the Patriots had only 17 returns of longer than 23 yards this season. It will be interesting to see if Blount's returns prove to be an anomaly or if there are more big gains ahead for the Patriots in the return game.
What I Said: "These may seem like arbitrary numbers—and maybe they are—but I can't be the only one who finds it interesting that Tom Brady has thrown for 34 or more touchdowns and 12 or fewer interceptions in the same season on four separate occasions (2007, 2010-2012) and in each of the past three seasons."
What Happened: Brady fell well short of these numbers, with just 25 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. His 87.3 passer rating was his lowest for a full season since 2003.
Brady may have been undone by the Patriots' early-season struggles in the red zone and lack of chemistry on offense. Some might look at the numbers and think Brady is in decline, but the Patriots had 19 rushing touchdowns this year, the second most of any team.
If Brady's struggles continue next year, then the questions about his decline are real. However, another offseason could be just what Brady needs to get in sync with everyone.
What I Said: "The ceiling for this team feels like 12 wins, and that's not accounting for a slow start if the Patriots offense isn't immediately in tune or any potential upset that may occur over the course of the season—and we can usually count on the Patriots for at least one of those. The schedule isn't easy, but with Tom Brady at quarterback and Bill Belichick as the head coach, it's hard to predict fewer than 10 wins."
What Happened: The Patriots were better than I expected, at least in this space. I think it's interesting that I said the ceiling was 12 wins, and that was without taking into consideration all the key injuries (because they hadn't happened yet).
Even with all that, the Patriots actually exceeded their expected win-loss record of 10.5-5.5, according to Pro Football Reference.
At least I wasn't the only one who was wrong about the Patriots.
So, things happened about how I expected they would for the Patriots. And in this space, I'll go ahead and predict that they make it to the Super Bowl. We'll see how that one turns out.
Will they win? I won't go that far yet, but I will predict this: No matter the outcome, the game will come down to the final play, just like so many other Patriots games this year.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or via team news releases.