Sunday was a reminder of the coulda, shoulda, woulda and "what ifs" in the NFL.
For months, Patriots fans (and players, too) will be thinking about Wes Welker's drop, Rob Ninkovich's penalty, drops by Aaron Hernandez and Deion Branch, Mario Manningham's catch, the safety and more.
If one of those plays goes the other way, the offseason could be spent lauding the legacies of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Monday's columns would be about the team "on a mission" that came through for its heartbroken owner.
For a seventh consecutive season, the Patriots will not get a ring, a common thing for most teams, but it's noteworthy for a Patriots franchise that had the best record in the AFC in three of those seasons (2007, 2010 and 2011).
This offseason will be a long one for New England. But win or lose, the Patriots' team needs this offseason aren't much different than they were at this time last year. But, as with last season's playoff loss to the Jets, a postseason exit seems to magnify things. Instead of this being the focus a couple of weeks from now, a Patriots loss immediately shifts thoughts to the future.
The PFW spin
After the loss to the Jets last year, overreaction or not, the game seemed to show that the Patriots needed a big-time receiver and the defense's pass rush needed a boost. Offseason acquisitions of Chad Ochocinco and Andre Carter appeared to suffice those needs, but Ochocinco was a bust and Carter missed the playoffs with an injury.
With Rob Gronkowski clearly limited, Welker and Hernandez handled the receiving load against the Giants, and did so effectively, but it's hard to argue that a big playmaker on the outside wouldn't have helped the Patriots' cause on Sunday night. Branch will be a free agent and will be 33 when next season begins. It should be noted that the Patriots' first order of business this offseason will likely be the re-signing of Welker, but that is pretty much a given and doesn't improve Brady's stable of weapons.
The Patriots don't have to look far to see what an attacking defensive front can do to counter the passing offenses that rule today's NFL. The O-line played well for the most part, but Justin Tuck's plays were huge, and the Pats' defensive front seven didn't make those kinds of plays against Eli Manning. Vince Wilfork had another tremendous season, and Carter played well when healthy, but there is still a piece missing. Carter, Mark Anderson, Gerard Warren and Shaun Ellis are free agents.
In the back end, Hakeem Nicks beat everyone the Patriots put on him, starting with reserve CB Antwaun Molden. Kyle Arrington did a superb job on Victor Cruz, and the coverage from Sterling Moore couldn't have been much better on the big play to Manningham, but the team lacks a shutdown corner, especially after Devin McCourty's sophomore slump.
When it comes to the secondary, there are two pieces to the unit who finished the season on injured reserve — CB Ras-I Dowling and FS Josh Barrett — both of whom could factor in next year's rotation. DBs Nate Jones, James Ihedigbo and Molden are free agents.
Free agency will also force the Patriots to make decisions on RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis and OG-C Dan Connolly. With two picks in each of the first two rounds of the draft, there will be ample opportunities in April to start to upgrade personnel.
Heading into Sunday, I thought the Giants were the better team, but the Patriots had the quarterback and head coach to get it done — and arguably they should have. But instead, the Monday after in Foxborough is a somber one, with thoughts of what could have been and, now, what needs to be done.
On the bright side, short of any drastic moves by the Jets or Dolphins, the Patriots remain the team to beat in the AFC East in 2012. Unfortunately for Brady and Belichick, that won't be good enough until they get another ring.
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