Top 5 Patriots storylines of 2012

The Patriots have become synonymous with success under the leadership of head coach Bill Belichick and future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady, with 2012 proving to be no different.

The team came within minutes of capturing its fourth Super Bowl in franchise history, leaving a stain on the start of 2012 that would linger until the start of training camp in late July. The New York Giants had once again put an end to a storybook season for the Patriots, defeating them on the NFL’s biggest stage for the second time in five seasons.

But like they seem to do every year, the Patriots pushed forward with a notable offseason that left the team looking stronger than the season previous, and hopes for an improved defense (the 2011 group ranked near the bottom of the NFL in yards allowed) had fans once again thinking big.

The season to date has not disappointed, with the Patriots having punched their ticket to the playoffs once again, and a trip to Super Bowl XLVII a possibility within reach of the team that has set the bar for consistency in the NFL.

With a healthy sampling of memorable moments in 2012, five stood out above the rest:

1. Super Bowl XLVI. Unfortunately, 2012 will first be remembered for what could have been, as the Patriots were unable to complete the task in Super Bowl XLVI. Talk before the game centered around exacting revenge on the Giants, who had previously ruined the Patriots' perfect 2007 season, as well as the health of tight end Rob Gronkowski’s ankle. In the end, a handful of plays here and there left the Patriots stinging after a Super Bowl defeat.

2. The AFC Championship game. The Super Bowl was preceded by a memorable win over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game, which included an uncharacteristic miss from Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff to send the game to overtime. Just seconds before that, cornerback Sterling Moore -- signed off the free-agent scrap heaps earlier in 2012 -- came up with a pass breakup in the end zone to preserve New England’s lead.

3. Pats roll on MNF vs. Texans. Just a couple weeks ago, the Patriots steamrolled past the 11-1 Houston Texans on Monday Night Football, sending a message to the top team in the AFC and extending their winning streak to seven games. The Texans had billed the game as the biggest in franchise history, but the Patriots humbled them in resounding fashion, winning 42-14 in front of a national audience.

4. Gronk, Hernandez re-up. In New England, 2011 was the year of the tight end, with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez redefining the position and becoming focal points within the offense. The two were rewarded in the offseason with lucrative long-term contract extensions to ensure that they’ll stick around in New England. The deals were a strong commitment to each player, and more reason for major optimism for the franchise going forward.

5. Pats trade up to nab Jones, Hightower. The Patriots have become known to acquire draft capital with trades backwards in the order, but twice moved up in the first round to add defensive studs who could provide immediate contributions. Defensive end Chandler Jones has emerged as a top rookie pass rusher in the NFL, while linebacker Dont’a Hightower became a starter from day one, and looks the part of a longtime contributor.

A strong finish to 2012 has set the table for a big start to 2013, which will begin with a playoff run for the Patriots, winners of the AFC East for the fourth consecutive season.

The field in the AFC remains open, but the Patriots have proven to be among the most complete teams in football, and are certainly a threat to return to another Super Bowl.

A win in Super Bowl XLVII would further cement the legacies of Belichick and Brady, but also would provide such deserving players as Logan Mankins and Jerod Mayo with their first taste of the ultimate goal in football.

The Patriots continue to manage the salary cap at a high level, and will be in very good shape to maneuver in free agency. Where things will be different for New England, at least as it currently stands, is in the draft: The Patriots have just five selections in the upcoming proceedings, as three of their picks have been used in trades to acquire veteran players.

It appears 2013 could kick off with a deep playoff run for the Patriots, and with many of the central figures in place for next season, things continue to point up for the NFL’s most recent model of franchise consistency.

What are your five top Patriots storylines of 2012? Share them in the comments section.