The New York Jets had more bravado. A few teams might have had more overall talent. And yet, at the end of the season, the New England Patriots were right where they have been for most of the last 11 seasons: atop the AFC East and among the final contenders for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

The Patriots have won or tied for 11 straight division titles (losing by tiebreaker in 2002 and 2008) and, during that span, have played in five Super Bowls.

Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and crew could not quite pull off that elusive final win. But despite injuries and some weaknesses on defense, they were right in the mix until the season’s final Sunday.

So, is another run in store in 2012? And just how long can this group keep it up? Richard Hill, an assistant editor with Pats Pulpit, shared his thoughts with Zoneblitz.

Zoneblitz: New England went to another Super Bowl but came up just short in the end. How does the result grade against your expectations going into the season?

Richard Hill: Heading into the season, the Patriots looked to see progress from a team that finished 14-2 in the regular season, but fell short in the playoffs. They wanted to see the team push further in the playoffs and to see development from the younger players. Did they have Super Bowl potential? Absolutely.

Do they have a chance to make another run next season? Definitely.

For every letdown from the 2011 season, whether it was a setback by Devin McCourty, a free agent miss like Chad Ochocinco, or just the injury bug to the entire defense (Rob Ninkovich and Vince Wilfork were the only two players to remain healthy and start the entire season as Kyle Arrington and Kyle Love started the season as back-ups), there was a corresponding upswing, such as the emergence of Rob Gronkowski, the learning curve of Nate Solder, and the pure dominance of Andre Carter.

The fact that the 2011 Patriots made the Super Bowl may not have been a surprising result; however, the path to the championship was unexpected and made the season special.

Zoneblitz: In the wake of the Super Bowl loss, there was some radio talk that the game tarnishes some of the luster off Tom Brady’s career. What are your thoughts on that?

Hill: I disagree with those sentiments.

10 Full Seasons
9 Playoff Appearances
7 Pro Bowl Nominations
6 AFC Championship Appearances
5 Super Bowl Appearances
3 Super Bowl Victories
3 All Pro Nominations
2 Regular Season MVP Awards
2 Super Bowl MVP Awards

Zoneblitz: Despite a great record, the Patriots were quite vulnerable defensively in 2011. What were the problems and how can they be addressed?

Hill: The Patriots had a glaring issue on each side of the ball. On defense, the team couldn’t fight through all the injuries and were forced to the depths of the roster to put together a squad. The secondary lost every Week 1 starter for a point in the season (Ras-I Dowling, Leigh Bodden, and Josh Barrett for the season, Devin McCourty and Pat Chung for a span of a couple games) and the team was without any quality depth at safety. As a result, McCourty was unable to play aggressively and was often burned in coverage due to lack of safety support. A big need is to address the weakness at the safety position by bringing in both a quality free agent, with a young talent from the draft.

On offense, the Patriots were unable to spread the field. The Patriots had a cone-shaped offense, where they had deep threats up the middle in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, while the outside threats were short-route runners. This type of offense is much easier to defend and the Giants were able to stop the attack. The Patriots need a vertical threat- not just a deep threat- on the outside in order to make the offense more well-rounded. Picking up Brandon Lloyd or drafting a Marvin Jones would make sense.

Zoneblitz: BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a free agent and there is at least talk of Kevin Faulk retiring. What happens to the Patriots rushing attack in 2012?

Hill: The Patriots knew that Kevin Faulk was at the end of his career and understood that BJGE could be walking after the season. Last draft, the Patriots snagged 2nd round Shane Vereen and 3rd round Stevan Ridley to bolster the running corps and to provide depth for the upcoming years. BJGE is a steady running back who doesn’t fumble, which is extremely valuable, but he’s not much of a “threat” when compared to other running backs in the league. Look for the Patriots to try and re-sign BJGE for a reasonable price and, regardless of the BJGE situation, comfortably move ahead with Ridley, Danny Woodhead, and Vereen.

Zoneblitz: Chad Johnson was largely invisible most of the season and the team seemed to lack a game breaking deep receiver. Is this a position you expect the team to address? And who is out there that might make sense?

Hill: A common misconception that surrounds the Patriots offense is that they need a deep receiver. Tom Brady has never been a strong deep ball quarterback. He lacks the arm strength and deep touch to make the throws and relies on an intermediate and short timing offense. What the Patriots need is a vertical receiver who can hit all the routes on the outside- and they need this type of player badly. Brandon Lloyd is a free agent option and there are a few players in the draft (Marvin Jones, Marvin McNutt) who definitely make sense.

Zoneblitz: How is Rob Gronkowski’s recovery going? Do you expect Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez can repeat their 2011 performances?

Hill: This isn’t founded on anything, but Gronkowski should be ready for the start of the season. Gronk plays football. That’s it. As for their performances, Gronkowski had one of the best seasons for a tight end in the history of the game; if he goes anywhere near his production as both a receiver and a blocker, I would be surprised. Look for a slight regression in his numbers as teams focus on eliminating him. Should the Patriots find their outside receiver, Hernandez should see a slight improvement as he becomes a more consistent weapon.

Zoneblitz: Wes Welker has been franchised so he’s unlikely to go anywhere. Are there other priority free agents you think the team should retain?

Hill: If I had to label a few priority free agents, I would tab Kyle Love and Mark Anderson as the top options. Both players would provide consistency on defense and both became standouts over the season. Matthew Slater isn’t a priority, but his leadership value shouldn’t be understated. A few of the elder statesmen who should be retained are Gerard Warren, Andre Carter, and Deion Branch. Warren has value as a rotational defensive end, while Carter had a fantastic season. Branch has definitely lost a step, but should provide solid value as a #3 receiver.

Zoneblitz: How are the Patriots set for another making another deep run in the playoffs heading into 2012?

Hill: The Patriots will definitely benefit from the weaknesses of other AFC teams. There are no real challengers in the AFC East as the Dolphins remain without a quarterback, the Jets have a troubling locker room, and the Bills are the Bills. The AFC West is always a middling division without any elite teams. The AFC North is aging as the hearts of the Steelers and Ravens defenses struggle to find youth. On the other hand, the Bengals are young, but are a couple pieces away from competing. The AFC South seems to be rebuilding, outside of Houston, who are definitely a threat with a healthy offense.

Currently, the three teams that will stand in the way of a Patriots trip through the playoffs are the Steelers, the Ravens, and the Texans. All three have elite defenses with strong offensive attacks. However, the Steelers and Ravens seem to be on a downturn, while the Texans are swinging upwards. If the Patriots can improve their secondary and their outside receiver threats, then they should be able to stay ahead of the AFC competition and have another shot at the Super Bowl.

Zoneblitz: How much longer do you expect the Brady/Belichick tandem to stick around?

Hill: Brady looks to have 2-3 more elite years in the tank and 4-5 overall. Belichick should stick around until the end of Brady’s career- and maybe even through the career of Brady’s eventual replacement.

Zoneblitz: What would you like to see the Patriots do in free agency and the draft?

Hill: I’d like to see the Patriots bolster their defensive line with an elite defensive end prospect, improve their secondary with a top safety, and add a dangerous outside receiver threat. Those are the three priorities.

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