The 2008 season will go down as a memorable one in New England and many of those memories will be positive despite the fact that the Patriots missed the playoffs with an 11-5 record.
Atop the list of things that went well was the development and rise to playmaking stardom of Matt Cassel in the wake of Tom Brady's season-ending knee injury on opening day. Cassel, who heads into free agency this spring, not only proved he could manage the New England offense but that he could make plays for it. He finished the season throwing for 3,693 yards and 21 touchdowns with just 11 interceptions for an impressive 89.4 first-year passer rating.
What went right: Cassel led the offense by continuing to use New England's greatest strength on that side of the ball -- Wes Welker and Randy Moss. Welker remained the primary target underneath, with the slot machine catching 111 passes on his way to his first Pro Bowl. And while Moss wasn't quite the playmaker he was on the way to a record 23 touchdowns in 2007, he still managed to go over 1,000 yards and find the end zone 11 times.
Overall, Cassel was the poster boy for a team that overcame injuries, many to key contributors, to remain in the postseason hunt almost literally down to the final minutes of the season. Despite losing Brady, Adalius Thomas, Rodney Harrison, Laurence Maroney and a total of 14 players to injured reserve, the Patriots once again had backups step up and make plays across the board. First-round pick Jerod Mayo started every game at linebacker, led the team in tackles and is well on his way toward defensive stardom with a long career ahead of him in the middle of Bill Belichick's 3-4 defense.
What went wrong: Three things pretty much summarize the negatives in New England in 2008 and why the team missed the postseason for the first time since 2002 -- injuries, limited pass rush and a dismal secondary.
A loss that occurred last spring may have been the biggest, as New England struggled all year to replace free-agent departure Asante Samuel. It never did. Deltha O'Neal struggled and was eventually pulled from the starting lineup. Returning starter Ellis Hobbs also struggled and was clearly not ready to be called a No. 1 cornerback. Overall, the pass defense gave up too many big plays and let too many receivers run free over the middle of the field.
Of course, a solid pass rush can at least partially make up for a bad secondary. Unfortunately for Patriots fans, injuries and down years kept New England from putting together any sort of regular pass rush. Mike Vrabel dealt with a shoulder issue all season and saw his sack total fall from 12.5 a year ago to just four. Thomas' injury also removed a weapon from the edge.
Overall, the defense just didn't carry its share of the load in 2008, never mind pick up some of the slack felt went Brady was lost for the season.
--SS James Sanders returned to the starting lineup against the Bills after missing two-plus weeks with an abdomen injury that first flared up a month earlier in a loss to Pittsburgh. Sanders finished with eight tackles
--DL Richard Seymour was downgraded to out for the Bills game as his teammates left for the trip to Buffalo, with the former All-Pro remaining in New England with a back injury. While multiple published reports described the injury as not serious, Seymour did not practice the week leading up to the game and the injury will bear watching moving forward.
--S Ray Ventrone reportedly underwent jaw surgery last week and was listed as out prior to New England's trip to Buffalo for the finale. Ventrone has been a key special teams contributor all season, finishing with six tackles in the kicking game.
--DB Lewis Sanders, who had filled in for James Sanders by starting at safety in recent weeks, did not make the trip to Buffalo due to a shoulder injury.
--LB Tedy Bruschi (knee) and OL Billy Yates (hand) were both listed as out on New England's final injury report of the week leading up to the finale, leading a list of game inactives in Buffalo.
--WR Wes Welker finished with 111 catches for the season, one shy of the New England franchise record he set a year ago in his first action in a Patriots uniform.
--WR Randy Moss caught just one pass in the season finale, but it was enough to not only put him over 1,000 yards for the season (the ninth of his career) but also to move him up a spot past former Bill Andre Reed into ninth place on the all-time receiving yards list.