Well, so much for that.
So much for the invincible New England Patriots. So much for Tom Brady's and Bill Belichick's undeniable quest for a fourth ring. So much for a romp through the AFC and into New Orleans, with a berth in the Super Bowl a preordained fact of the matter.
New England's disappointing 28-13 loss to Baltimore in the AFC championship is nearly a week and a half old, but there should still be lingering feelings of shock among Patriots fans. After all, in December, this was the Super Bowl favorite. Just earlier this month, this team put 41 points on Houston in a playoff game.
And then, following four quarters of what-in-the-world-is-happening chaos, it was over.
The talk of New England being infallible was fake and phony, but the team wasn't. The Patriots were indeed an excellent football team, albeit one that ran into too much bad luck with injuries and shot itself in the foot a few times too many in big moments. When you do that, you lose championship games by 15 points.
And when you do that, you find yourself in this position—watching two other teams play in the Super Bowl, wondering how you can get there.
Now's the time when temptation is the strongest, but one shouldn't assume the sky-is-falling stance concerning these Patriots. New England wasn't exposed. It wasn't embarrassed. It wasn't revealed to be a house of cards, a team that didn't belong in the rarefied air it had reached.
The Patriots had a bad game. It happens.
That being said, New England has work to do. The loss to Baltimore showed there are some things the Pats still can't do, and some things they still can't do well enough. Improvements will be made, and the team will continue to adjust into a more rounded squad that can win games an increasing amount of ways.
To get to that point, Belichick and Co. will need to address a few questions concerning the roster. Here are some that need to be explored between now and the first kickoff of late summer.
Wes Welker's value to a football team can't be doubted at this point. He's a triple-digit reception machine who's always open, always working and always producing. When he's on the field, the offense works, almost all the time.
But that's not the question. The question is whether the Patriots want to make the long-term to commitment to Welker, whether they want to spend big money on keeping a 31-year-old first down machine.
There are a few reasons why the Patriots would be hesitant to give Welker the big contract his numbers suggest should have been given years ago. He's on the wrong side of 30, and he plays an excessively punishing role on the field. Welker's only 5'9", and unlike an Emmitt Smith, who made a career out of avoiding the square-on hit, Welker takes a beating nearly every time he catches the ball.
There's also the drops. The number of them isn't surprising (get 174 passes thrown your way and you're going to drop some balls), but the timing is. Both of the Patriots' last two playoff losses have featured back-breaking drops by the receiver, and though he catches far more than he lets slip away, it's an image that might stick in Belichick's head when it's evaluation time.
It shouldn't, and the coach is clearly more aware than anyone of Welker's importance. But the question isn't whether to play Welker, but whether to pay him. That'll be a big, offseason-shaping decision coming up.
It just wouldn't be a Patriots offseason without wondering whether New England has the sideline presence at wide receiver necessary to have a truly lethal offense.
The question was asked after 2009, when New England had no weapon opposite of Randy Moss, 2010, fresh off of Moss's departure, and 2011, when Chad Ochocinco's failed year was a hot topic. This year, Brandon Lloyd had a plenty effective season, but the sight of Tom Brady throwing key passes to Deion Branch against the Ravens allows one to wonder if more is needed.
It is the one area New England has nobody for—when Matthew Slater is your solution, you don't have one—and the one area in which adding a trusted, proven target would be deemed a considerable upgrade.
But is it necessary? The Patriots' offense hasn't had a chance to strut itself in the two playoff losses, as Rob Gronkowski, only the best player on the field not wearing No. 12, was hurt. New England looked flawed on offense in Super Bowl XLVI and this year's AFC title game, but it's hard to fairly evaluate an offense when its most important piece is either on the sideline or unable to run.
The truth is that no team has beat this Patriots offense at full strength since the Giants in November 2011, and no team has done it in the playoffs since the Jets in January of that year, when Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were rookies.
So do the Patriots need another receiver? If Welker stays put, it wouldn't hurt, but it's hard to see the team committing serious resources on that position. Bottom line, if Gronkowski keeps getting hurt, this offense will have a tough time scoring the points it's used to in the playoffs no matter who's in that receiver spot.
The good news: The Patriots currently have one of the best in the business, Sebastian Vollmer, manning the right tackle position.
The bad news: Vollmer's contract is up, and his return is no slam dunk.
If Vollmer digs in his heels during negotiations, however, things could get tricky. The injuries are no small matter to consider, and the Patriots will have other priorities to weigh, such as Welker's situation and potential improvements on the defensive side of the ball.
Letting a franchise-caliber tackle walk is a tough prospect to rationalize, but the Patriots could simply see themselves faced with an unpleasant numbers game. If Vollmer asks for the moon, New England might decide to trust its ability to groom a replacement.
For the fourth straight season, the Patriots' season came to an end with fans wondering why New England just couldn't get to the quarterback as much as the other team.
While the Giants, Ravens and Jets have done a good job of generating heat on Tom Brady, the Patriots have been exposed for not having that true pass-rusher, that player who can be counted on to disrupt the pass most of the time he's on the field.
Terrell Suggs is that kind of player. So are Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck. Shaun Ellis, at least on that one night in January 2011, is that kind of player.
Maybe Chandler Jones, whose rookie season was hampered by ankle injuries, is on his way to becoming that kind of player. Maybe Dont'a Hightower has that kind of player in him. Maybe Jermaine Cunningham can make the jump, as well.
Or maybe the Patriots need to focus on that in free agency or the draft. New England has some clear pieces in its defensive front going forward, such as Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich, but as San Francisco and Baltimore have shown, having that pure edge-rusher pays off.
Wherever that disruptive presence comes from is unclear. But the Patriots clearly need more of it.
Before the Patriots took on the Ravens in the AFC championship game, much was said about how improved the New England pass defense was. And the reports were true.
The Patriots were a lot better at making throwing the ball against them difficult. Then the game started, a half passed and Joe Flacco came out of the locker room and shredded them.
The Patriots had a better pass defense, but nowhere near a deep one. All it took was one injury for everything to unravel. When Aqib Talib limped off the field, the Patriots immediately went from surprisingly sturdy to the all-too-familiar 32nd-ranked pass defense in the league.
The Patriots had a good secondary in their championship seasons too, but they weren't just good. They were deep. Rodney Harrison, Eugene Wilson and Ty Law could miss time and things didn't fall apart. Against Baltimore, the Patriots had zero response to Talib's departure.
That has to change.
The Patriots can't go into next year with their fingers crossed that one player stays healthy. They have to have a defensive backfield of players that can slide around and fill spots if necessary. That doesn't mean having Deion Sanders and Rod Woodson at every position, but it does mean being balanced.
The Patriots have some good pieces going forward. Devin McCourty is plenty good enough at safety. Alfonzo Dennard has a bright future. Kyle Arrington, should he come back, was never a problem in the slot.
But New England needs that No. 1 corner. In a pass-happy league, having that player that can take care of the opponent's best receiver provides a crucial advantage. Talib showed himself to have that kind of talent in him, and New England can cross that need off its list by bringing him back. If the Pats let him walk, they'd better have a backup plan.
There's also the matter at safety. Patrick Chung is a free agent and saw his playing time dip drastically last season, and Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson were inconsistent throughout the season.
The Patriots will need a more full-time answer back there with a knack for keeping the team's haphazard pass defense on the same page. There are rumors linking the team to Ed Reed, an idea that makes too much sense to ignore. Bill Belichick loves Reed, he's still an upper-tier player and Belichick's great Patriots defenses have all had that wise veteran presence at that position.
The Patriots can also look to the draft, where players like Texas's Kenny Vaccaro and Florida's Matt Elam can be scooped up. But the secondary must improve. What we saw against the Ravens just isn't good enough.
Devin McCourty's kickoff return for a touchdown against the Jets in October was an anomaly. For the most part, returns for the Patriots were uneventful, and while players like Houston's Danieal Manning and San Francisco's LaMichael James showed off return chops against them, New England's kick returners were often just struggling to get back to the 20.
Julian Edelman continued to show skills returning punts, but New England was again missing that dangerous presence who could take a kickoff, make a few people miss and give Tom Brady and the offense the ball near midfield. When the playoffs arrive and just marching up and down the field on offense gets tougher, the difference between a decent returner and a great one can play off.
Of course, the perfect answer could be in house. Jeff Demps missed the entire season but will be back next year, and the idea of the Olympic sprinter (who has his share of football moves as well) catching kicks and taking off downfield at full speed is enticing, to say the least.
The Patriots will definitely give Demps a chance to grab the job, but they should bring other players with big-play ability in for a look. It's a good dimension to have on the team, and New England could use an upgrade.