The offseason is a time for active reflection.
You gaze deep into the gap which divides winning and losing. You pry open that dark gap and crawl inside. There, you become a detective, investigating the reasons why your season ended earlier than you had hoped.
As free agency approaches, you climb out of the darkness with answers and solutions. This is when the momentum builds and the adventure begins.
Here are New England's top five free-agency priorities, ranked from least to biggest.
Tight End Dustin Keller
As of now, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez require all of your concern, all of the time.
This is especially true of Gronkowski, who's only been a superstar for two seasons, but has ended both seasons as ineffective or inactive due to injuries.
Gronkowski and Hernandez are perfect tight ends on paper, but they're fragile. The Patriots' ultimate success relies heavily on the synchronicity of their health. That's a ton of pressure to pile on these two players. It also checkmates the Patriots into potentially building their team on a pit of quicksand.
The Patriots would be wise to make this subject a priority. They ignore this situation at their own peril.
Tom Brady has the second most important job in New England.
The top job belongs to the men who protect him.
Because of that, it's imperative that the Patriots pay careful attention to their offensive line. They can't afford to skimp on the men who guard the king. For that reason, they need to make Sebastian Vollmer a priority. He's a free agent and he needs to be re-signed.
To play devil's advocate: Vollmer has struggled with back issues throughout his career, which calls his durability into question. With a list of top moneymakers already plagued by health issues (guard Logan Mankins, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez), there's definitely a grey area with Vollmer's future production.
Still, back issues aside, this job is too important to give away. The Patriots would certainly be wise to make other signings and carve more depth along the offensive line, but Vollmer needs to be their top priority. He's an essential piece of this puzzle.
Two major free agents worth chasing are already in New England.
The first is Julian Edelman. He's an irreplaceable player. He's a throwback warrior with tough skin and a tough soul, totally coachable and totally devoted to winning. His best football is still to come. He's about to unleash his breakout season on the world.
The second free agent worth chasing is Wes Welker.
Welker certainly isn't perfect; he's dropped too many big passes in his career and he's demonstrated an inability to carry the team across the finish line.
Still though, Welker's strengths are simply too strong to ignore. He's tough as nails and he's as talented as any receiver in the league. He's the guts of the Patriots. Plus, he delivers great playoff positioning, year after year.
The Patriots are playing with fire if they let him walk.
They need to re-sign these free agents, then draft some young blood to complete their offense.
Eli Manning and Joe Flacco have made some audacious throws against the Patriots over the last few years. They dared to be so brazen because they knew they could get away with it against New England's secondary.
For years now, the Patriots have left themselves vulnerable in key spots and crossed their fingers in the hopes that nobody would take advantage of it. But time and time again, they get burned. When the playoffs arrive, daredevil quarterbacks dig into New England's soft secondary.
It's time for solutions.
The Patriots need some machismo. They need some raw, old-fashioned football brutality. They need defensive backs who put some wrath behind their hits (Keenan Lewis, Brent Grimes, Cary Williams and Jairus Byrd come to mind).
Ed Reed and Charles Woodson are certainly two options to consider, as well. However, this is hardly a perfect situation. Reed is 34 and Woodson is 36. At this point, they're more valuable in name and presence than in tangible production. Their greatest contributions would be in their leadership and their soul. The Patriots certainly need a heavy dose of those things, which is why this experiment could work.
Still though, even with that leadership, the Patriots would need some additional hardcore strength to cement the deal and make this a championship secondary.
They have plenty of options, they just need to get the right chemistry.
Why didn't the Giants fear the Patriots during those two Super Bowls?
Simple: New York's pass rushers knew they held the winning hand.
Rushing Tom Brady was the ultimate challenge, which they accepted with the utmost pleasure. They knew they could rattle him, both physically and mentally, which would cause a ripple effect and capsize New England's entire boat.
This singular conviction made the Giants' defenders obsessed with Brady. They gained inspiration and strength from the simple notion of rushing him. It's the motivation they needed to become world champions.
The Baltimore Ravens are cut from a very similar cloth, as we've seen over the last few years. The Ravens thrive on their toughness, which they force down the Patriots' throat in a variety of ways.
Bernard Pollard has been inextricably linked with the Patriots, both physically and verbally, since 2008. In addition, Tom Brady has been the subject of Terrell Suggs' obsessive hostility for years, with trash-talking that continues to hit way below the belt.
Like the Giants, the Ravens use this toughness to improve their swagger. That swagger makes them better. It's a natural cycle: A team must walk and talk like a big dog before they take over.
The Patriots haven't been able to walk or talk like a big dog during the playoffs for years, because the Giants and Ravens walk and talk like bigger dogs.
This constantly puts the Patriots at a disadvantage before the games begin, which is why they often look discombobulated during these postseason contests (for instance: Opening Super Bowl XLVI with a safety, not scoring a single point in the second half of the 2012 AFC Championship, and so on).
New England needs to acquire aggressive pass rushers who will change their image and forcefully neutralize their enemy's venom through intimidation.
If the Patriots get better pass rushers, the Giants and Ravens will think twice before throwing barbs at them, for fear of throwing red meat to New England's attack dogs and putting their own quarterbacks in jeopardy.
The Patriots need to get the most vicious rushers they can find. They should chase guys like Desmond Bryant and Henry Melton. They should chase everyone.
It's reasonable to overspend here.