The upcoming few years for the NFL have the potential to be incredibly bad.
With the owners having opted out of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the league faces labor strife in the long term and a great deal of confusion in the near term.
Unless the league strikes a last-minute deal with the union before its new year starts in early March (a prospect that is looking more and more unlikely), the league will face an uncapped year, and all the uncertainty that goes with it.
This, of course, raises many questions. If the league goes a year without a salary cap, will the cap be gone for good? With salary restrictions removed, will we see the salary polarization that cripples baseball? Will there be a massive shift in the league, as there was when the cap was instituted?
However, the most important question (for Patriots fans, at least) is this: How can the Pats take advantage of this situation?
Believe it or not, New England is well-situated to improve itself over the offseason, and that's at least partly due to the oddities of this coming year.
As the National Football Post's Mike Lombardi has reported , the Pats are one of the few playoff teams in the league unfettered by free agency rules caused by the situation. Ironically, they won by losing the Ravens game; had they advanced, they would only have been able to sign players to replace those lost through free agency.
Given that last year's team had substantial weaknesses that would have likely prevented it from winning it all, this is the best-case scenario—they were a playoff team, and can still improve.
This also creates a situation in which the teams better than the Pats cannot improve themselves substantially.
Of course, there is always a catch: the minimum amount of time a player needs to qualify for unrestricted free agency jumps as well, from four to six years. As such, we're losing a crack at some of the league's youth (which is a blow, as the Pats need to get younger).
This year is also the first to determine the draft order by playoff elimination order. Before, it had been done strictly by won-loss record (except, of course, with the Super Bowl winners and losers picking last and second-to-last, respectively).
What does this mean for the Pats? They now have the 22nd pick, ahead of such teams with worse records such as the Jets (9-7) and Baltimore (9-7). Not too shabby, eh?
Also, thanks to Bill Belichick's wheeling and dealing, the team has three second-round picks in a draft supposedly stocked with talent.
The Patriots, in short, are in a position to make a lot of personnel changes.
This is useful, given that the team has so much to fix. They need to get younger, bigger, and faster on the defensive side of the ball. They need at least one new receiver on offense. If Vince Wilfork leaves, things could be catastrophic.
Nonetheless, the Patriots are well-positioned to make great strides this year.