The employees at my Foxborough, Mass., hotel -- some who sported Patriots jerseys -- were sullen. The day seemed gloomy outside, and Logan International Airport didn't have the same buzz and energy it did when I arrived two days earlier.
This was expected to be the season the Patriots got over the hump and celebrated their first Super Bowl victory since the 2004 season. New England had the top-rated offense, an improved defense and a 35-year-old quarterback still playing at an MVP level. In addition, the Patriots caught breaks the past few weeks that gave the team home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
But the tough and talented Ravens had other plans.
New England's upset loss to Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game will sting Patriots fans for a while. But New Englanders shouldn't fret. The Patriots are primed and ready to make another title push in 2013.
Here are five reasons the Patriots' championship window remains open:
Analysis: Yes, Brady will be 36 at the start of next season. But Brady has shown no signs of slowing down and should be an elite quarterback for at least the next two or three seasons. Brady threw for 4,827 yards, 34 touchdowns and just eight interceptions in 2012, receiving strong MVP consideration once again. But Brady's recent playoff struggles are well-documented. After a 10-0 start in the postseason, Brady is just 7-7 in his past 14 playoff starts. However, Brady has done enough to get the Patriots in position for another title. The Patriots have been within a drive of winning two Super Bowls and gone 2-2 in AFC Championship Games since 2005. As long as New England continues to knock on the championship door, the team has a chance to break through. With a healthy Brady in 2013, there’s no reason the Patriots shouldn't be one of the favorites again in the AFC.
Reason No. 2: Bill Belichick
Analysis: There are a lot of people who do not like Belichick's demeanor. He’s not the most likeable head coach in the NFL or the best sportsman, according to Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe. But Belichick is the league's best head coach. Three championships and five Super Bowl appearances highlight a résumé no other current coach can match. As long as Belichick is roaming the sidelines, the Patriots usually have the coaching advantage on game days. Belichick has delivered double-digit wins in New England every season since 2003. That is a mark of tremendous consistency. New England has the winningest coach and quarterback combination in NFL history with Belichick and Brady. No other club has this level of elite coaching and quarterbacking.
Reason No. 3: Weak AFC East
Analysis: For the Patriots to fall from the top of the AFC East, another team has to rise up in the division. Based on the '12 season, there is still a significant gap between the Patriots and everyone else. The New York Jets are a mess that will take at least a year or two to clean up. The Buffalo Bills are starting over and rebuilding under a rookie head coach in Doug Marrone and probably a new quarterback. The Bills will have to suffer through a learning curve next season. The Miami Dolphins have the best chance to immediately challenge New England in 2013. Miami has a good, young quarterback in Ryan Tannehill and plenty of cap room and draft picks to build a strong roster. But the Dolphins have to make all the right moves in order to become an immediate contender. New England's gateway to success and the playoffs has been winning the AFC East. The Patriots will enter next season as the hands-down favorite once again to win the division.
Reason No. 4: Young talent
Analysis: The Patriots often get the reputation of a veteran team because of leaders like Brady on offense and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork on defense. However, New England won 13 games this season, including playoffs, with a host of young players. The Patriots had 16 players who were 26 or under starting full or part time. Starting running back Stevan Ridley and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are just 23 years old. Starting left tackle Nate Solder is 24. Rookies such as linebacker Dont'a Hightower, defensive end Chandler Jones and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard also round out a strong and productive rookie class. If most or all of these young players continue to improve and develop into their roles, New England will be even more dangerous next season.
Reason No. 5: Improving defense
Analysis: New England's defense made good strides in 2012, particularly in the second half of the season. The Patriots were 25th in total defense -- up six spots from a year ago -- and ninth in both scoring and run defense. New England learned in the AFC title game loss to the Ravens that it still needs significant improvement in the secondary. The cornerback position is very thin, and the team fell apart when Aqib Talib left the game with a thigh injury. Talib will be an unrestricted free agent, and that is an area New England must address in the offseason. New England's aforementioned draft that included Hightower, Jones and Dennard played a large part in the Patriots' defensive improvements.
The Patriots have done a masterful job the past dozen years of reloading and not rebuilding. Having an elite quarterback such as Brady in the fold certainly makes a huge difference.
But New England's window will not be open forever. The time is now for the Patriots to make another title run before Brady and Belichick call it quits. Once this power pair walks away from New England in a few years, the Patriots will have ups and downs like every other NFL franchise.