Patriots Face Major Identity Questions After AFC Championship Game Loss

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Patriots Face Major Identity Questions After AFC Championship Game Loss
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Different look, same taste.

It's like a bad ad campaign for a new logo on your favorite soda, only the New England Patriots and their fans have been left with a taste in their mouth that's more bitter than sweet.  

In past years, physical teams have been the Patriots' playoff kryptonite. They've been thrown off their finesse game plan, as the offense has sputtered to an unproductive finish after a red-hot season. This year, a balanced offensive approach looked like the elixir to fix those ails. The running game found its stride in recent weeks, and the offense appeared to have the ability to beat defenses in a number of ways.

Their best efforts to run the ball were thwarted by a Denver Broncos defense that dared New England and quarterback Tom Brady to air it out.

Now, the Patriots have suffered gut-wrenching postseason losses when fielding a high-powered aerial assault and when boasting a balanced attack with a juggernaut running game.

What is the future for the offense? What is the key to getting this team back to the Super Bowl? Those are the million-dollar questions the Patriots will have to answer this offseason.

Much of the identity crisis comes from New England adjusting on the fly, virtually all season. 

That will happen when you start the year without your former All-Pro tight end who set a single-season record for receiving touchdowns for his position just two years ago. That will happen when your No. 2 running back, Shane Vereen, was set for a major role in the offense before a Week 1 wrist injury sidelined him until Week 11. That will happen when your top free-agent signee (Danny Amendola) injures his groin in Week 1 and is much less effective than anticipated.

As each wheel fell off the Patriots bus, they had to reset their GPS to find a new road.

Along the way, they've taken several detours. They went from an offense trying to work the ball outside the numbers with their young receivers to one attacking all parts of the field when Rob Gronkowski returned to a balanced offense that ran the ball effectively.  

A few players emerged in a big way in the process, with Julian Edelman ably replacing Wes Welker and becoming only the third player in team history to catch over 100 passes, and with LeGarrette Blount setting a team record with 334 total yards in a game and four rushing touchdowns in another.

The balanced offense, which was supposed to be one of their keys to a Super Bowl run, was really only a month old, born Dec. 22, 2013, in Baltimore, Md. That was the breakout performance for the Patriots running game, which totaled 142 yards while asserting its will on a stingy run defense

New England was productive all the while and finished the season ranked third in scoring and seventh in total yards, but so much changed so fast, and the Patriots never settled into a groove.

The final result was an offense that was outmanned and couldn't find consistency in the biggest game.

Blount finished Sunday with six yards on five carries, the Patriots totaled 64 yards on 16 carries, and the running game wilted and no longer provided the necessary threat to round out the offense.

They may not have to do so much adjusting next year, when they are back to full strength, but there are still questions. 

Do the Patriots want to go back to being a high-scoring machine? They'll need to get better at the skill positions for that—especially if Edelman leaves via free agencyand some help on the offensive line wouldn't hurt, either. Do they want to stick with the balanced attack? They may need to find a new back, if Blount signs with a new team.

But one key player, who has meant so much to the Patriots offense for years, meant a great deal to their struggles this year: Gronkowski.

Patriots offense
Status Games Pts/gm Yds/gm Pass yds/gm Rush yds/gm 3rd-down % RZ %
With Gronkowski 7 32 417.7 298.1 119.6 37.6 68.8
Without Gronkowski 9 24.4 358.7 222.2 136.4 43.7 43.8

Source: Pro Football Reference

Maybe the Patriots believe they can return to the potent offense they fielded when Gronkowski was in the lineup, but with his string of injuries and with the loss of Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots may even need to consider looking at adding a tight end this offseason.

The Patriots were moving the ball at will from Weeks 6 through 13. Vereen gave us flashbacks to Kevin Faulk. Edelman played well all year, but even he seemed to benefit from Gronkowski's presence.

Gronk should be ready in time for the regular season, according to the NFL Network's Albert Breer, but who knows if the Patriots can count on a full season from him at this point. He hasn't finished a campaign at full health since he was a rookie. 

Either way, the Patriots have some major questions to answer this offseason about what direction their offense will take.

 

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.

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