The football-watching world’s obsession with the New England Patriots was put on hold after their elimination from the playoffs with their near-miss defeat to the Denver Broncos in the AFC title game. There has been a temporary cessation in the DeflateGate talk and the always fierce debate over whether the Patriots are cheaters or victims of the jealousies of less-successful rivals.

But it won’t last long.

DeflateGate soon will be back in the spotlight with the NFL’s appeal of the federal judge’s ruling overturning Tom Brady’s four-game suspension. And a very good case can be made that the Patriots, not the defending-champion Broncos, will enter next season as the Super Bowl favorite in the AFC.

For 10 games of this season, the Patriots appeared to be on a DeflateGate revenge tour. They seemed fully capable of crafting their second 16-0 regular season and Brady appeared headed for MVP honors.

It unraveled from there. Injuries, particularly along the offensive line, left Brady with too little help around him. The Patriots ended the regular season on a 2-4 downward spiral following a 10-0 beginning. They had two chances to wrap up the top seed in the AFC playoffs but lost both games. That left the AFC championship game to be played in Denver rather than in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The Broncos took advantage, barely holding on thanks to a failed two-point conversion by the Patriots in the closing moments. The Patriots were relegated to spectators for Super Bowl 50 as the Broncos went on to beat the Carolina Panthers 24-10 Sunday in Santa Clara, California.

But the Broncos who take the field at the outset of next season won’t necessarily closely resemble the Broncos who celebrated amid the confetti Sunday at Levi’s Stadium. Peyton Manning seems likely to end his legendary quarterbacking career and retire in the glorious afterglow of a Super Bowl triumph. Even if he doesn’t, he is probably done in Denver, according to his father Archie.

The Broncos have a successor-in-waiting at quarterback in Brock Osweiler. But he is eligible for unrestricted free agency this offseason. So, too, is standout pass rusher Von Miller, the Super Bowl MVP. The Broncos have only one franchise-player tag to use. So they can’t use it on both Osweiler and Miller. They have some negotiating to do. They also have a lengthy list of free agents that includes such key players as linebacker Danny Trevathan, defensive end Malik Jackson, running back Ronnie Hillman and guard Evan Mathis. It isn’t easy to keep a Super Bowl winner intact. Good luck, John Elway.

If the Patriots can fix their offensive line and if Brady can avoid a four-game suspension, they will enter next season as the team to beat in the AFC. But those are two big ifs.

The Patriots fired their offensive line coach, Dave DeGuglielmo, following an AFC title game in which they could not prevent Miller, DeMarcus Ware and the Broncos’ other pass rushers from hitting Brady early and often. Maybe that dismissal was justified and maybe it wasn’t. Injuries left the Patriots patching together their offensive line for much of the season. But it is clearly an area that needs work and attention.

Brady’s playing status will be out of the Patriots’ hands. The league’s appeal of the ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman that voided Brady’s four-game DeflateGate suspension is scheduled to be heard March 3 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The NFL clearly is not letting this go.

“That is not an individual player issue,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said at his annual state-of-the-league news conference on Friday. “This is about the rights we negotiated in our collective bargaining agreement. We think they are very clear. We think they are important to the league going forward and we disagree with the district judge’s decision. We are appealing that, which is part of the legal process. I am not focused on it right now. I am not going to speculate on what we are going to do. Depending on the outcome, we’ll let the outcome be dictated by the appeals court. When it happens, we’ll deal with it then.”

Goodell declined to say Friday whether the league would reinstate Brady’s suspension if it prevails on appeal. But it would be almost unthinkable that the NFL would do anything else after continuing to press the case in court.

The NFL Players Association likewise is ready to resume the courtroom tussle. The union’s executive director, DeMaurice Smith, said last Thursday in San Francisco that the NFLPA is more concerned with the pending appeal than it is with the NFL’s refusal thus far to release to the public the data gathered during its random checks at games league-wide this season of air pressure in footballs.

“I think the issue for the union is to continue to defend the player and prepare for the Second Circuit hearing,” Smith said. “Issues of PSI and how they collected it and what kind of job that they’ve done is up to them. If we think the information is important, at some point we’ll demand it. But the process that we’re in right now is fighting and vindicating the collective bargaining agreement.”

Does it matter to the Patriots’ Super Bowl chances next season if Brady is suspended? The Broncos, after all, overcame Manning’s missing a portion of this season while rehabilitating his ailing foot and still won the Super Bowl.

But the Broncos were led by the league’s top-ranked defense, which carried Manning and the offense to Sunday’s victory. The Patriots still rely on Brady to be their centerpiece, both in terms of production and on-field leadership. They need to play well enough all season that the next AFC title game is in Foxborough, not elsewhere. And they need to avoid being in the position that they were this season, due to injuries, of still attempting to figure things out on the fly and make all the pieces fit together properly with the postseason underway.

Brady turns 39 in August. He continues to play at an extremely high level. But time will catch up to him soon enough, just as it caught up to Manning this season. His Super Bowl opportunities are beginning to dwindle. The window certainly isn’t closed on him yet, but it is beginning to slowly inch shut. The end hasn’t arrived, but it is in sight.

The Patriots let an opportunity for a fifth Super Bowl title under Brady and Coach Bill Belichick slip away this season. They will have another very good chance next season. It will be up to them to seize it.


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