Once again, the New England Patriots' season was cut short just before it got interesting.
Bill Belichick and his men could not handle the Baltimore Ravens, and they will have to wait until next season for another chance at a fourth Super Bowl title.
Unfortunately for Belichick, the championship window is closing. While the Patriots are the favorites to win the AFC East and advance to the playoffs, there are several question marks surrounding the team.
For the past couple of years, New England has been exposed in the playoffs. Next season is going to be another one of those years.
Nobody is contesting Tom Brady’s greatness. He is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and still one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
That being said, he will be 36 years old in August. Although his looks may hide it, Brady is a veteran who has already been through season-ending injuries. His age will be a liability heading into the 2013 NFL season.
Furthermore, Brady’s record in big games during the past few years should make you a little nervous if you’re a Patriots fan.
He’s lost quarterback duels to Joe Flacco and Eli Manning, both of which should be manageable for a player like Brady.
Gronkowski has developed into the best receiving tight end in the NFL in just three years. If he had stayed healthy, the Patriots would arguably have won at least one Super Bowl during the last two years.
The problem is that Gronkowski is extremely injury prone. During Super Bowl XLVI, he played with an injured ankle, which proved to be crucial when he came so close to coming up with a touchdown on the final play of the game.
This year, Gronkowski missed the playoffs with yet another injury that required surgery. So far, everything seems to indicate that these injuries are something the Patriots will have to live with. If they can’t find a way to cope, they will not win the Super Bowl next season.
Belichick has always been known as a mastermind, but lately he has made some decisions that would force you to question that label.
I’m not just talking about the controversial decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 on his own 28-yard line against the Colts in 2009.
In his past two Super Bowls, Belichick has been out-coached by New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin. It was Coughlin who came away from those games looking like a defensive mastermind by constantly putting pressure on Brady.
However, it’s more alarming that Belichick was out-coached by John Harbaugh, who didn’t become a head coach until 2008, in this year’s AFC Championship Game.
When the Ravens came out in the second half and took over the game, Belichick had no response.
The Patriots have a dilemma on their hands during free agency. They want to re-sign Wes Welker, Sebastian Vollmer and Aqib Talib, but they know they might have to let one of them go.
Considering that the current New England Patriots are not a Super Bowl team to begin with, parting with either of these three would be devastating.
Welker is Tom Brady’s primary receiver, Vollmer is their best lineman and letting go of Talib would deplete an already weak defense.
So far, reports seem to indicate that Talib might be the one to leave, as New England is hesitant to offer him a multi-year contract.
This means that the Patriots' high-octane offense will have its work cut out it them next year.
The Patriots won their three Super Bowls behind a solid defense with star players like Tedy Bruschi and Richard Seymour.
These days, the New England defense is just a shadow of its former self. They ranked 29th in pass defense last season, which is disastrous in a league that is now sculpted for quarterbacks.
Tom Brady is a great game manager, but he can’t do it all by himself. He needs help from his defense.
While the Patriots have the opportunity to beef up their defense through the draft, it seems implausible that a couple of rookies will make the Patriots into a championship caliber team.