The New England Patriots' loss in the AFC Championship game on Sunday was a bitter ending to an otherwise successful season. A 12-4 record capped with yet another division crown only to fall in the conference title to a deeper, more talented football team in the Denver Broncos.
In many ways, Sunday's defeat was a microcosm of what has plagued the Patriots over the last five plus postseasons; they are the beneficiaries of a largely uncompetitive AFC East that allows them to stockpile wins, but they haven't had a better roster top to bottom than the teams that have gone on to win it all.
In Denver, the talent gap was blatant. Peyton Manning played a near-perfect game, throwing for 400 yards and two touchdowns en route to a two possession win over the Patriots. Not to take away from Manning's stellar play, but having four pro-bowl caliber receivers at the fingertips is a luxury most quarterbacks can't even fathom.
Tom Brady, by comparison, was mediocre. He missed a few crucial throws, including an early deep ball to Julian Edelman that would have put New England in great shape to get a first half touchdown. There's no glossing over the fact that Brady needs to play at a higher level in these win or go home postseason contests. Go back as far you care to though and the proof is in the pudding. After starting his playoff career on a legendary tear of 10 straight wins, Brady and Belichick have gone .500 since. 2 Super Bowl Appearances, 5 AFC title berths, an 8-8 record and zero championships.
It's been nine years, nearly a full decade since New England has claimed the Lombardi Trophy. Remarkably, Bill has kept this team in the hunt for a championship nearly every season since, but the formula just hasn't been quite right. Still, the X's and O's genius sleeplessly tweaks and tinkers away at his roster in the hopes that it can get his team over the hump.
For years, the talking heads of the football world prematurely spewed off that the Brady window was closing. Double-guessing every time Belichick let a fan favorite walk in free agency or traded back for "value" picks in the draft. And yet year after year, New England finds themselves back in the postseason spotlight, competing for a chance to get back to the biggest and brightest stage in football. But can they actually win another one? That's certainly the expectation that Belichick and Brady have set for themselves, so it' seems only fair that the Patriots faithful share in their optimism.
Tom Brady will be 37 years old when training camp rolls around in August. Window metaphor or not, it's time that Bill assemble a team built to win now, rather than frantically worrying about depth and cap space years down the road. To even suggest sacrificing long-term success for immediate gratification goes against everything we know about Belichick and the Patriots as an organization, but it's a necessity to capitalize on the dwindling years that Tom Brady has left. In terms of continuing to play at an elite level, the end, sadly, is truly near.
Belichick may have some serious re-tooling to do, but assembling a championship caliber team from what he's got isn't impossible. Far from it.
Largely due to the litany of injuries, and I'll spare you the list, this was the youngest team in Bill Belichick's tenure. In fact, this group of 53 was a full year younger ( an epoch by NFL standards) than any other at his helm. The defense has a young and talented core of players, both in the secondary, with the emergence of rookie cornerback Logan Ryan, and the steady play of Alfonzo Dennard. The middle of the defense has a ton of room to grow with Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins. The front office has locked up two very solid bookends in Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones.
That's not to say there isn't plenty of work to do though. Difficult decisions will need to be made and it starts with either re-signing or placing the franchise tag on Aqib Talib. As we saw in Denver, the entire defense suffers when he's not able to take out the opposing team's best player. If the Wes Welker offseason saga taught us anything, it's that Bill better be ready to pony up to retain Julian Edelman; without him, this could have been a very different season. The Patriots got lucky. The guy that they actually committed the guaranteed dollars to in order to replace Welker-Danny Amendola- had a forgettable season. In Sunday's game, he was targeted just once and dropped the ball going over the middle. Having Edelman waiting in the wings was a little more than luck; he couldn't draw serious interest in free agency due to his injury history which is the same reason why the Patriots wouldn't have blinked if he walked away.
Belichick also needs to seriously consider trading for a bona fide number one receiver. Edelman had a breakout year, but he's not a big mismatch guy and he offers a number of the same skills as Amendola. Dobson and Thompkins both showed flashes of promise before being derailed by injuries, but neither are ready to assume a number two role in a complicated offensive system just yet.
Don't forget about Rob Gronkowski either. The Patriots need to seriously consider a contingency plan for the Gronk in the event that he's never quite the dominating force he was a couple of seasons ago. Luckily, this year's draft class is supposed to be stocked with athletic, pass-catching tight ends, with names like Eric Ebron and Jace Amaro slotted to go in the first round.
In the twilight of his career, it's obvious that Brady needs more weapons. The onus is on Belichick the GM to supply them for him.
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