Every Super Bowl stumble comes with a heartache that lasts deep into the offseason. Success hasn't made the New England Patriots immune to that darkness. A long, cold offseason awaits after a crushing 41-33 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII on Sunday.
In many ways it'll feel the same as the Patriots' two other Super Bowl losses since 2001, when their dominance began. And in one significant way it won't because there's another feeling settling in.
That feeling is uncertainty, and there's enough of it to put their dynasty in question.
The postgame second-guessing and agonizing over missed plays is familiar. This time the Patriots will wonder how much of a difference it would've made had kicker Stephen Gostkowski not lost four points on a missed field goal and a shanked extra point.
The Patriots, like the rest of us, will also spend seven months baffled by quarterback Tom Brady's rewriting history in Sunday's contest. He became the first quarterback to lose a game—any game—while throwing for 500-plus yards (he finished with 505 yards) with three touchdowns and zero interceptions, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The Patriots have felt the bitter sting of a lost championship before and recovered by the next fall to keep rolling along just fine. Their contender status didn't fade, and the cozy seat they've occupied atop the league stayed warm.
The questions after every letdown are automatic, and the response that comes the following season has been too. For years we've wondered if this Super Bowl loss or that AFC Championship Game stumble is the final one before an impenetrable castle comes crumbling down and a dynasty is halted.
Every time it seems the Patriots' doomsday clock is getting closer to midnight, the duo of Brady and head coach Bill Belichick chuckle and casually rewind those ticking hands. For Brady, the battle against time has defined him both personally and professionally, and winning it is central to the brand he's built.
But the Patriots are about to undergo significant change, all after a season with turmoil. Their chances to have more duck boat parades were always going to dwindle eventually. And now the only thing more difficult than swallowing a Super Bowl LII defeat will be keeping that window open by even a sliver.
The largest hurdle facing the Patriots in 2018 will be a reshaped coaching staff after the departure of both coordinators. Belichick is a masterful motivator and an advanced football mind who plans for seemingly every conceivable scenario. But even a genius on his level needs support, and likely losing both of his top sideline lieutenants in one offseason is a tough challenge to overcome.
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will soon be the next head coach of the Detroit Lions. There was some confusion around Josh McDaniels' future earlier Sunday when ProFootballTalk's Mike Florio reported he's heard "increasing chatter" the 41-year-old might not decide to leave New England after all. However, Mike Chappell of Indy Sports Central reported McDaniels will still be the Colts' next head coach.
The Patriots defense may have been stunned by Eagles quarterback Nick Foles in Super Bowl LII. The unit allowed the backup to throw for 373 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 8.7 yards per attempt. But the Patriots had a shot at a sixth championship during the Brady-Belichick era largely because of Patricia's defense that weathered early-season struggles, allowing an average of only 18.5 points per game (fifth).
McDaniels, meanwhile, orchestrated an offense that put Brady in position to win his third MVP award. The Patriots offense led the league in average yards per game (394.2) and finished tied for second in points per game (28.6).
Continuity can be the oxygen for a successful offense and quarterback. McDaniels had been the Patriots' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach since 2012, his second stint in that position during Belichick's dominant reign over the AFC. Over McDaniels' most recent six-year run, Brady posted four seasons with 30-plus touchdown passes and three straight with a passer rating over 100.0, and he threw double-digit interceptions just once.
Sure, it's true that the Patriots machine has kept marching through other coaching changes, though it'll be tough for even Belichick to manage the loss of two coordinators. But the alarms reach a higher pitch when that critical hit is combined with other looming question marks.
The next such question brings us back to Brady's age and his grappling with time.
He might eat plenty of avocado ice cream and consume gallons of water daily. But history is one mighty foe, and Brady will turn 41 years old just prior to the 2018 season. Going down the list of the NFL's best quarterbacks in their age-41 seasons gets depressing fast.
It also doesn't take too long. Warren Moon threw 25 touchdown passes in 1997, which makes him the post-merger single-season leader among quarterbacks aged 41 or older, according to Pro Football Reference. Then there's a steep fall to Vinny Testaverde in second, with 17 touchdown tosses.
Even if Brady stays in top physical condition, he only controls so much and relies on the weapons around him. Which is where the next potential dent in the Patriots dynasty comes in to slow him down.
The Patriots are projected to have only $19.3 million in salary cap space, according to Spotrac, which ranks 24th and is well below the league average of $38.8 million. They'll likely lose several key pending free agents from a group highlighted by left tackle Nate Solder, cornerback Malcolm Butler, wide receiver Danny Amendola and running backs Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead.
Add in this noncommittal response from megastar tight end Rob Gronkowski when asked about retirement, and suddenly Brady is starting to look even older.
Brady and Belichick have overcome towering obstacles before. But they haven't done it with so much changeover and with turmoil possibly brewing between them and owner Robert Kraft.
ESPN.com's Seth Wickersham reported on the trouble in Patriots paradise in January. Winning silences any fracture in a relationship, and the Patriots—with seven straight seasons of at least an appearance in the AFC Championship Game—have done plenty of that.
This time feels different, though, as Brady and Belichick age and the coaches and players around them drop off. There are too many elements aligning against them.
Eventually they won't be able to fend off the end of an era any longer. And that time could be here sooner than expected.