FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In the perfect New England Patriots world, this would have been the site of a frigid but unforgettable welcome-home party. Instead, the majority of parking spaces at Gillette Stadium were unfilled Monday morning. Foot traffic was sparse.
No, the Patriots weren't returning to town as Super Bowl champions, but for most of the fans that showed up here at the team's Pro Shop what unfolded in Super Bowl XLIV was the next best thing.
"I thought the Saints did a great job and I was rooting for them right along," added season-ticket holder Myles LaBrode, 65, of Taunton, Mass. "I guess you could call me an anti-Peyton Manning fan."
"I thought the main thing is that it settles the debate on who is the quarterback of the decade," said Andy Thibeault, 47, of Middletown, R.I. "Manning had his chance again but couldn't deliver."
That was the prevalent theme here the morning after the Saints' 31-17 upset victory over the Colts. Most fans were happy with the result while sharing their thoughts on how the Patriots can possibly clutch the Vince Lombardi trophy for the first time since the 2004 season.
"That game we lost this year at Indy was a bummer but I feel a little bit better now," said
Ernie Pina of Cumberland, R.I., who came to the stadium to tour the team's Hall of Fame on his 70th birthday. "You have to pay your respect to Peyton, he's a helluva football player, but I'm a Brady fan over him."
As for what the Patriots might do this offseason to recalibrate for a Super Bowl run, Pina didn't hesitate. "You have to build up the defense," he said.
Tony Pasquale, who watched the Super Bowl at Patriot Place and described the atmosphere at one sports bar as 99 percent Saints fans, believes the changes must cut deeper than just the defense.
The 26-year-old Pasquale, a native of Worcester, Mass., feels the Patriots need a philosophy change, and that explains his rooting interest in Super Bowl XLIV.
"I was actually rooting for the Colts. I'm very upset with how the Patriots have been in this 'one way; we're going to do things the same way for a long time' type of mode," he said. "I was thinking that if their archrival won, it would force them to look at things differently and maybe change the way they do things as a franchise. I'm very frustrated."
Saying he's "tired of living in the past," Pasquale was asked what changes he would suggest to help the team reposition itself to Super Bowl contender status.
"I don't know, maybe get some coordinators? That would be a start," he said passionately. "Then you can't let your good players go, like Asante Samuel. People say 'Why can't we get a player like that?' Well, you had one and let him go. So I'd start focusing on keeping the ones you have and stop signing so many free agents at the tail end of their career thinking that they will fit into the system.
"That's another thing -- the system. You hear it's so complex on offense and defense, but then you look around and other players are coming into other teams' schemes and fitting right in. I'm not buying it here. I think we need to stop giving ourselves credit for having a complex system. Maybe we need to change the system to fit the players who are out there."
As for Sunday night's Super Bowl, Pasquale credited Saints coach Sean Payton for thinking outside the box.
"He did stuff that if it didn't work, everyone would have criticized him, Monday-morning style," he said. "But I like how he went with it and said, 'We're not going to play the game the way it's normally played.' I like that aggressiveness."
Pasquale is hoping the Patriots display a similar type of aggressiveness in how they approach this offseason.
Fans had a variety of thoughts on the best areas to focus, with LaBrode noting that the team is going through a "rebuilding process." He'd start with upgrading the offensive line.
Still, LaBrode said he is optimistic and looking forward to next season, although he is concerned about head coach Bill Belichick taking on too much of a workload. He hopes that more leadership emerges in the locker room.
"I think it's a big loss when players like [Tedy] Bruschi left; it's too bad they lost those senior players because they were a key element of the thing," he said.
Thibeault, who was buying a Tedy Bruschi jersey for his son, thinks wide receiver is a more pressing issue than others might realize.
"I liked the acquisition of Randy Moss and think he has been a great asset, but I do think there are times he did dog it a bit this year," he said. "You add that to [Wes] Welker's [knee injury], and that could be an instant need."
Yet he feels the Patriots aren't as far away from returning to the Super Bowl as some might think.
"As long as the nucleus is there -- Belichick, Brady -- then I think you can build around it," he said. "I still think you put them in the elite teams."
Maldero agreed, although she was concerned with what she saw from Brady at times in 2009.
"Injuries do set you back and hopefully one year completed helps him come back to 100 percent," he said. "Something didn't seem right there."
As for the overall state of the team, Maldero pointed out that "we have a lot of different players now than we did a couple years ago. I don't know if all of them are about the team."
For the most most fans seemed to be optimistic about what is ahead. The message seemed to be this: If the Patriots couldn't win the Super Bowl, at least the Colts didn't, and hopefully 2010 will be a better season in New England.
"We'll be back," Pina said. "We'll be putting up another banner."