FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – So what’s next for the New England Patriots?
Where do they go from here?
The team that was once considered a dynasty after three Super Bowl championships in four years in the early years of this century continues to be very good, but not good enough to win another title.
It’s now been eight years since the Patriots won their last Super Bowl and Sunday night’s 28-13 home beatdown against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship game was certainly one of the most jarring losses New England has had in a long time.
“That’s the NFL,” said Patriots Coach Bill Belichick. “The last game — (if) you’re playing a game this time of year — (it’s) either euphoria or crash landing. For us (Sunday), it was crash landing. A year ago at this time, it was the other feeling.
“It’s one or the other; there’s no in between. There’s certainly no soft landing. A season that’s very much alive and with great hopes and expectations and energy suddenly crashes and it’s over. That’s the way it is.”
So on Monday, instead of preparing for a trip to New Orleans to take on the San Francisco 49ers, the Patriots were filling empty cardboard boxes and beginning their offseason. “It’s on to next year,” said Belichick.
For players like defensive end Rob Ninkovich — the one guy who could be counted on all season to make big plays — that means taking a couple of weeks off “to get my body right” and then starting the long process to get back to this point.
“You’ve got to move on,” he said. “You can’t really dwell on everything that happened to us. You’ve got to move on from it. You hope that the guys who were in the game learn from their mistakes and their experience from getting to the AFC (championship) and how it hurts.
“I’m going to keep working to get back and have a better year next year.”
The Patriots have a lot of decisions to make. They have 31 free agents (including the eight players on the practice squad and two on injured reserve). The biggest?
Wide receiver Wes Welker, cornerback Aqib Talib, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, running back Danny Woodhead, wide receiver Julian Edelman and cornerback Kyle Arrington.
Welker and Talib look to be the biggest ones, but will also likely cost the most. Welker is certainly one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, someone that quarterback Tom Brady has called “the heart and soul” of the team. Talib made the Patriots’ defense measurably better after he was acquired in a Nov. 1 trade.
When he left the AFC championship game with a tweak of his right hamstring with 5:10 left in the first quarter — “It just wasn’t strong enough to return,” he said on Monday — the game swung dramatically in the Ravens’ favor.
Do the Patriots spend a lot to bring them both back? And what about Vollmer, who has developed into one of the league’s better right tackles?
“We will not make any decisions on any players into the future now,” said Belichick. “You just can’t do it. There are too many factors, too many unknown things.”
Talib, while addressing the media, said his situation will play out later.
“I had a lot of fun,” said Talib. “The most fun I’ve had playing football in a long time. I definitely enjoy being a Patriot.
“Right now I’m in the training room with the guys, having fun. Free agency doesn’t start until March. Till then, I’m a Patriot.”
Building a team, said Belichick, is a long process. The Patriots will spend time analyzing how they did things as a staff and as individuals, then take a look at how they can improve. As a team.
“You’ve got to look at the entire context of the team and not just take it one guy, piece by piece,” said Belichick. “I don’t think that’s the way you put together an entire football team. You’ve got to see the big picture and how it all fits together and there are a lot of factors that go into that. That’s why it takes some time.”
Belichick did answer one question:
“Yeah. I’ll be here; you’ll have to deal with me again next year,” he said, to close his press conference. ” I know that’s disappointing for a lot of you. Until I’m told otherwise, I plan on being here.”
And that’s good for the team because, as kicker Stephen Gostkowski said, “As long as we have Coach Belichick we’ll be all right.”
The Patriots did a lot of good things this season. They won 13 games and got to the AFC championship game for a seventh time in 12 years. As Belichick noted, “There aren’t a whole lot of teams saying that.”
And, noted Ninkovich, a lot of young players on defense — rookies Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Tavon Wilson, Alfonzo Dennard — gained valuable experience. “Our future is definitely bright so we have to continue to be mentally strong and learn from it,” he said.
Ninkovich and others know of the team’s rich legacy. But, he said, this team has to create its own.
“That whole era is over with,” said Ninkovich. “It’s gone. So this is a whole new team, it’s a different bunch of guys. We all have to experience it and learn for ourselves what it’s like. Getting in the Super Bowl last year and losing left a bad taste in my mouth.
“I would have liked to get back this year but that wasn’t the way it happened. You take all the lessons in life and learn from them and put your best foot forward the next year.”
Starting, well, today.
Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: