The Pats tasted disappointment, but they're not far from euphoria.
After all the buildup to the pursuit of a fourth Super Bowl title for Tom Brady and the gang, the New England Patriots' 28-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game felt like a needle to an Aerobed.
In the wake of a blowout loss, fans and columnists like to craft whole narratives about the winning and losing teams. For the Patriots, the headlines today malign them for having "fear in their eyes" or cite this game as evidence that their reign of dominance in the NFL is crumbling.
Funny, when the New York Jets made it to back-to-back AFC Championship games, it sure seemed like they were peaking.
Here's the larger point I'm trying to make: Yes, the Patriots weren't Super Bowl-worthy this year. They had their worst game at the worst time and got beat by a more deserving team.
But they've also got a young and improving defense, a balanced offense with a remarkable array of weapons and a Hall of Fame quarterback who showed no signs of slowing down in 2012-13.
Let's take a look at five things the Pats can do to bring a fourth Lombardi trophy to New England in 2014.
With the salary cap estimated to be about $121 million in 2013, the Patriots, who have approximately $100 million in commitments (after factoring in both 2012 cap room carryover and dead money), should have about $20 million to spend on next year's roster.
While they've got plenty of impending free agents to juggle, their first priority should be to re-sign cornerback Aqib Talib.
It's strange to think of Talib as more important than wide receiver Wes Welker, but the AFC Championship Game demonstrated his worth to this team.
Talib is the lockdown press corner the Pats need. His ability to shut down receivers in man coverage has given the defense flexibility to run complex schemes ranging from robber techniques to fire-zone blitzes.
Talib's price tag will be steep—other lockdown corners like Johnathan Joseph (five years, $49 million, $23 million guaranteed) and Brandon Carr (five years, $50 million, $10 million signing bonus) have cashed in on their talents in a pass-happy league.
A viable comparison might be Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie, another lockdown corner with personal red flags. Cromartie got a four-year, $32 million contract from New York, and a similar deal could be done with Talib if the Pats feel his injury issues won't be recurring.
Acquiring Henry Melton would be a huge commitment. Given the cap situation, it might spell the end of Wes Welker in New England.
Still, it is a commitment worth making.
Though I don't like to extrapolate too much from a small subset of games, it seems pretty clear that the Patriots haven't had a Super Bowl-caliber defense since at least 2007. The Patriots are too reliant on Tom Brady, and that can't continue to be the case as he ages.
To that end, they need to build a defense that can generate consistent stops when Brady isn't at his best.
Retaining Talib would be a step in the right direction. Acquiring Melton, a 26-year-old stud interior lineman, would put them over the top.
Melton is exactly what the Patriots didn't have this year—a defensive tackle who can push the pocket upfield. According to ProFootballFocus, Melton graded out as the seventh-best DT in the NFL at rushing the passer. While he's undersized (295 pounds) against the run, he holds up well and would benefit from the tutelage of Vince Wilfork.
Melton might command somewhere in the neighborhood of $4-6 million annually, and he would be worth it for the Patriots. His ability to push the pocket back so the QB can't step up makes everyone else on the line more effective.
A line with Wilfork and Melton?
Sign me up, and put me on the queue for 2014 Super Bowl tickets while you're at it.
I love Deion Branch. Any Pats fan should—he's a former Super Bowl MVP, after all.
But it's an absolute embarrassment that he was playing significant snaps for the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. No defense needs to respect him at this point in his career.
On the other side of the field, Brandon Lloyd was far from a disappointment, finishing just shy of a 1,000-yard season. Still, he's more of a workman along the sidelines than a burner who can make a defense pay for man coverage.
New England needs a player that will make opponents think twice about cheating a safety away from him. A lot of people have been talking about Tavon Austin, who is a true burner with positional versatility, but the Pats need size as much as speed from their wide receivers.
What they need is a player like Tennessee's Justin Hunter.
Hunter is 6'4", and though he needs to add bulk to his frame, he's got the top-end speed (he's a former track star with a 40 low of 4.4) and excellent ball skills to stretch the field like no other receiver on the Pats roster.
He's also a red-zone threat, which is something the Pats sorely lacked against the Ravens (five trips to the red zone, one TD).
Hunter was a year removed from ACL surgery in 2012, and it showed—he lacked some explosiveness despite good overall numbers (73 passes, 1,083 yards). That might hurt his draft stock, and if the wide receiver falls to the Pats at the 29th pick, they should take him.
Wes Welker: Yes, the cap is going to be tight, but with a restructuring of Brady's contract (either by pushing a chunk of his cap hit into 2014 or extending his deal entirely) and some judicious roster management (detailed on the next page), the Pats can make this work.
Welker could get hit with the franchise tag again for an $11.4 million cap hit, or he could be signed to a multi-year deal in the $8-9 million annual range. Here's hoping the two sides can come to a two-year deal at around $16 million total.
Julian Edelman: Edelman's an interesting case. He serves as great skill-position depth and demonstrated explosiveness on special teams this year. Still, he has been tremendously injury-prone and wound up on IR again.
If the Pats can re-sign him for around $2 million annually, they should jump. But given his injuries, they have a lot of the leverage in this situation, and they should only retain him on a team-friendly deal.
Danny Woodhead: Like Edelman, the Pats will only keep Woodhead on their terms.
He's a viable third-down option, and he's strong on short patterns and blitz pickup, but Woody is more valuable to the Pats than other teams due to his rapport with Brady. Look for him to come back cheap.
Michael Hoomanawanui: Ho-Oh, a restricted FA, will likely battle for a roster spot in training camp next year.
Marquice Cole: He got picked on a bit in the AFC Championship, but Cole is a good slot corner who can be had cheap.
Sebastian Vollmer: This is no knock on Vollmer's performance, as he again played at a high level in 2012. But with the Pats incurring a $10 million cap hit from Logan Mankins next season, they can't afford to sink another big investment into the offensive line.
Vollmer's back issues are well-documented, and the Pats shouldn't take that risk as he approaches his 30s. Time to draft a cheap replacement or let offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia work his magic with prospect Marcus Cannon on the right side.
Stephen Gostkowski: Shocker, right? "Ghost's" nearly half-million annual raise (he's due to make $2.5 million in 2013) would have put him just outside the top five highest-paid kickers in 2012. He doesn't merit that high of a contract, and cutting him would save the Pats about two million dollars in cap room.
Kyle Arrington: Arrington improved dramatically in pass coverage over the second half of the season, and he's a strong special teams contributor. Still, the Patriots will have Ras-I Dowling returning from injury in 2013 to take his spot as the versatile slot/outside corner.
This is a good opportunity to go with the cheap, higher-upside option.
Patrick Chung: Chung's play has diminished over the years, and he's been picked on in coverage in 2012. He lost his starting job once Devin McCourty moved to safety, and he's now too fragile to be counted on, even in run support.
The Pats should let someone else overpay Chung for his hard-hitting abilities.
Daniel Fells: Cutting the disappointing TE saves the Pats about a million dollars in cap space. Should be an easy decision.
Trevor Scott: Scott had a few nice plays, but didn't take enough advantage of the opportunity that injuries along the line afforded to him. He likely won't be back.
Deion Branch: Time to let the fan favorite retire; like Jason Varitek with the Red Sox, the farewell tour has gone on too long.
Spencer Larsen: Cutting Larsen would save the Pats $750,000 in cap room. Almost a sure thing.