Patriots Have Silver Linings Despite Losing AFC Championship vs. Broncos

Erik FrenzSenior Writer IJanuary 25, 2016

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick fields questions during a press conference following the NFL football AFC Championship game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, in Denver. The Broncos defeated the Patriots 20-18 to advance to the Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)
Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

It's going to be a long offseason for the New England Patriots. Or will it?

The Patriots lost to the Denver Broncos, 20-18 in the AFC Championship Game, and that loss will sting until the Patriots have a chance at redemption in 2016. 

There will be frustration over missed opportunities on third downs; there will be second-guessing over choosing not to kick field goals on a few key late fourth-down opportunities; there will be wondering what might have been if the Patriots had just been a little healthier. There will also be a very similar Patriots team taking the field in 2016.

The NFL punished the Patriots by revoking a first-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft, but they also do not have many key free agents to re-sign this offseason. 

Patriots free agents, 2016
PlayerPosition2015 cap hit
Ryan WendellC$2,400,000
Tavon WilsonFS$1,342,057
Akiem HicksDE$1,259,588
LeGarrette BlountRB$949,632
Nate EbnerFS$684,150
James DevelinFB$660,000
Sealver SiligaDT$660,000
Dane FletcherILB$581,353
Justin ColemanCB$435,000
Brian TymsWR$363,000
Source: Spotrac.com

The only big names of note are fullback James Develin, defensive tackle Sealver Siliga, running back LeGarrette Blount and defensive end Akiem Hicks. In short, the Patriots could have it a lot worse than to have to re-sign a fullback, a running back and two backup defensive linemen. 

There could be some players that leave the fold as salary-cap casualties; linebacker Jerod Mayo and wide receiver Danny Amendola have cap hits of $11.4 million and $6.8 million in 2016, respectively, according to Spotrac.com. However, It wouldn't be out of the question for one or both to restructure their deals.

Not only will the Patriots hang on to most—or all—of their key players this offseason, but they will be getting several key players back from injury.

The Patriots sorely missed left tackle Nate Solder in their loss to the Broncos, with pass-rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware causing problems for the Patriots all day, but he will return from his elbow injury next season.

Injured players coming back
PlayerPositionGames played in 2015
Nate SolderLT4
Dominique EasleyDT11
Dion LewisRB7
James DevelinFB0
Source: Patriots.com

Running back Dion Lewis was a sensation in his first seven games in a Patriots uniform, but his season was cut short by a torn ACL. Fellow running back LeGarrette Blount was lost for the season with a hip injury. The Patriots could have used much better production in the running game against the Broncos—they rushed 14 times for 31 yards—and at least one (maybe both) of those players will be back and healthy.

Defensive tackle Dominique Easley was having a dominant season for the Patriots' interior pass rush, but his season was cut short by a thigh injury. The front seven was a strength for the team, and it will only get stronger with Easley's return.

But even with all the players being retained and all the others making returns, there are more positives to look forward to. 

There's the continued development of cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan. The Patriots' two top cornerbacks of 2015 should get better as they get more experience, and this was their first year as full-time starters.

There's the growth of rookie guards Shaq Mason and Tre' Jackson, two first-year players who shouldered a heavy load on the inside of the Patriots offensive line. 

Think of how far the Patriots made it this year. Now think about the fact that the Patriots had so many injuries and a lot of new, young players that were burdened with big expectations. Don't say, "It's a miracle that the Patriots made it this far," because it's obviously not. The Patriots are a good team every year, and they have the best quarterback-head coach duo in the game, so it should never be a shock when the Patriots are competing for championships at the conference and/or league level every year.

It shouldn't be a shock if and when they're competing for those very same things again next year.