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Sting of loss remains fresh, but Patriots' future is still bright

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- “I didn’t come this far to only come this far.”

That was the quote relayed by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady entering the playoffs, and it’s why what unfolded Sunday in the AFC Championship Game, a 20-18 loss to the Denver Broncos, stung so many in the locker room afterward.

This was as trying of a season for Patriots players as there has been, which was acknowledged in the locker room after the defeat in which Denver battered Brady and took it to the New England offense in a way that hasn’t been seen around these parts very often.

Deflategate had lingered all offseason, but the Patriots powered through it, building the type of mental resolve that coach Bill Belichick views as critical for a team with championship hopes.

“We were under so much scrutiny the entire offseason. People didn’t have a lot of great things to say about us and we took that personally,” special-teams captain Matthew Slater said. “It was our goal to come out here and win as many games as we could and achieve the ultimate goal.”

Once they got past Deflategate, the next obstacle was a string of injuries that ripped through the team. It was so bad that there were weeks when the team had just five healthy offensive linemen for a game, forcing centers to play right tackle and practice squad call-ups into starting roles.

“We went through a lot. Our guys battled all the way through the season,” running back James White said. “A lot of guys got injured and everything and we just pulled through. We had a great season; it just wasn’t the outcome that we wanted.”

Now the process of looking ahead begins, with Belichick holding a 9 a.m. ET news conference and players gathering for their final team meeting and exit physicals. Reporters will have access to the locker room at approximately 11:15 a.m.

Belichick can expect to field questions on Sunday’s game, and also about the club’s 2016 outlook, which is promising. The team’s free-agent crop isn’t significant, with defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, running back LeGarrette Blount and special-teams standout Nate Ebner the top players set for unrestricted free agency.

While not having a first-round pick hurts, they also still have significant assets in the form of other selections, with more to come when compensatory picks are awarded in a few months. Wide receiver, running back, offensive tackle and cornerback are a few areas that stand out as obvious needs to address.

So the Patriots are well-positioned to once again be in the mix of AFC contenders in 2016, with Brady showing no major signs of decline and the core of the team returning.

At this point, it’s a little too quick for players to look ahead, but the future is still bright.

“As an older player when your career is obviously closer to the end than the beginning, it’s tough,” Slater said. “There is no guarantee that you’re going to get back to these games, and that’s tough to swallow.”