On Sunday, for the second time in the past three years, the Patriots’ season came to an end at the hands of Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
The 20-18 road loss capped a lackluster second half of the year for New England that was marred by injuries and inconsistent play on both sides of the ball. Overall, the Patriots dropped five of their last eight games after starting the season with 10 straight wins.
The disappointing finish should lead to a busy offseason for Bill Belichick and company as the franchise tries to reload and maximize the remaining years of Tom Brady’s championship window. What will be on top of the team’s to-do list? Let’s examine three keys to the offseason.
1. Bulk up the offensive line
The Patriots lost to Denver for plenty of reasons, but the team’s inability to protect Tom Brady was chief among them. The Broncos’ pass rush lived in the offensive backfield all day, hitting the veteran quarterback 23 times as Denver routinely blew past a makeshift Patriots offensive line. The return of a healthy Nate Solder next season will help that unit, but Belichick needs to find some additional reinforcements up front to keep 38-year-old Brady from getting battered on a weekly basis. Whether the situation is addressed via draft or free agency, it should be New England’s top priority this offseason.
2. Become a multidimensional offense once more
It’s generally not a good sign when Tom Brady passes the ball 56 times and is also your team’s top rusher in a game with 13 total yards, but that’s the situation the Patriots found themselves in on Sunday. Those numbers are reflective of a predictable offensive attack by New England in recent weeks. Patriots’ running backs only carried the ball 21 times in two postseason games combined, averaging less than three yards per carry.
The injury bug was a component of those struggles, with both Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount sidelined late in the year, but the status of those players entering next season remains a big question mark. Blount is a free agent and Lewis is coming off a torn ACL. In order to create a more diverse offensive attack against elite defenses, the Patriots must upgrade the talent in the backfield to help take the pressure off Brady.
3. Lock up the defensive talent
While the Patriots’ offense may have plenty of areas to address, the team’s defense held up well under the bright lights of the postseason. The unit got the stops it needed to give the offense a chance to win in Denver, and its young core featuring Malcolm Butler, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower and Chandler Jones is showing plenty of promising growth on the field. All four of those key parts are signed for next season, but each is set to become a free agent after 2016. Rather than risk being outbid for them on the open market, the Patriots should try to get ahead of the game this summer by locking them up to long-term deals.