It's easy, really. If the Patriots had surrounded Tom Brady with more weapons on offense, it's likely the Patriots would have had the honor of getting shelled by the Seahawks (to a lesser degree, I'm sure).
And it's simple. If the Patriots could stop getting hurt on defense, they had all the tools to be a defense that would easily rank in the top 5, instead of barely breaking the top 10.
The Patriots could have built their team to be as dangerous on both sides of the ball as the Broncos and as the Seahawks and we could ask Bill Belichick to step up to bat in free agency to copy the top two teams of 2013.
They could surround Brady with receivers that stand 6'3 or greater, making it easier for him to just throw the ball up for completions. It would undeniably help the team's struggles in the red zone. They could beef up their trenches with players like Louis Vasquez and Terrance Knighton in order to win the battle at the line of scrimmage.
They could continue to lighten their linebackers, a necessity to keep up with the slot receivers and the tight ends that are running rampant. They could improve the pressure from their interior defensive line and find a strong safety who can lower the boom and enforce the middle of the field.
But that's too easy. That's what copycat teams will be doing this off-season and that's not how Champions are built. Champions aren't built from copying the model of success- they make their way to the top through innovation, risk mitigation, and arbitrage.
Both teams have similar models for success, yet could not be built any more differently. There were key players on both teams acquired through the draft, as well as in free agency. One-year "prove-it" deals by Shaun Phillips and Michael Bennett more than paid off for both teams, yet outside of Peyton Manning and Percy Harvin, can you think of a flashy acquisition by either team?
One focused heavily on the offensive side of the ball, while the other tried a more balanced approach. Of course, you'd be surprised to find out that the Seahawks dedicated the second greatest percentage of their salary cap to the offensive side of the ball in the entire league, while it was the Broncos who were balanced. The true success on both teams is how their cores were acquired.
Offense by the Broncos. Defense by the Seahawks. Both built up through superior drafting and usage.
The Patriots would do well to steer clear of emulating either of the league's two finalists. Instead, there are some clear lessons that every team can follow:
1) Maximize one year rentals. Everyone laughs about the Patriots using the elderly on one year rentals, but this is actually where the most valuable depth can often be found. It's not about stunting the growth of other players on the roster, but instead surrounding the team with a mix of experiences and skills. These one-year deals can bring in hungry players who have plenty of to prove; whether it's for their final season, or playing for that big contract, these players are cheap alternatives who can push the team over the edge.
Where the Patriots have strayed is in their rental positions. Flushing the tight end and wide receiver spots with short term deals only works if they can develop a rapport with Brady (not easy). If, instead, the Patriots go for rentals in the secondary, or the defensive tackle role (like Tommy Kelly!), they might be able to use their natural ability to carve a niche and make their own plays happen.
2) Create square holes for square pegs. The Patriots should be familiar with this, as well. The early success in the Belichick/Brady era had plenty to do with finding cast-off talent that didn't have a traditional role on the field and finding a way to use them. Tall cornerbacks are just another checkmark along side "tweener pass rusher" and "small, yet agile tight end". Players who can play need to be drawn into the playbook.
And this is where Belichick is king. He must determine where the next trend is going and be the first early adopter on the market. Move tight ends are so last season and are overvalued. Quick linebackers are en vogue. The market's about to be bullish on long press corners. How can the Patriots try and take advantage of this market make-up? We may have seen the future in LeGarrette Blount- watch the Patriots beef up their offense to take advantage of the smaller defenses. These running backs who no one wants in the draft? They might be the 4th and 5th round picks that make up the next Super Bowl champion.
3) Open the staff to new ideas. It's well known that Belichick is the engineer behind the Patriots machine and he hand crafts his parts to fit into the franchise. He prefers home-grown talent to bringing in outside coaches because he wants guys to learn the how and the why behind his decisions, not just the what. For the 2013 season, the only coach who isn't a part of the Belichick coaching tree, or was a carry-over from a prior Patriots administration was wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea.
Now it's clear that Belichick isn't in the same situation as the relatively new hires of John Fox and Pete Carroll, but with Dante Scarnecchia gone (as well as Pepper Johnson and George Godsey), there's an obvious vacancy: assistant head coach. Someone who can challenge Belichick to new ideas and to keep a fresh and unique perspective on the game. Fox has former head coach Jack Del Rio. Carroll has former head coach Tom Cable. The obvious promotion would be former head coach Josh McDaniels, but an outside perspective could a much needed alternative perspective.
Here's my dark horse: special teams coach Scott O'Brien. He spent time as assistant head coach from 1999-2006 with the Panthers and the Dolphins. Although, to be fair, O'Brien is like McDaniels in the sense that Belichick hand picked him to start his career. The three remaining coaches who aren't lifers with Belichick are O'Shea (Chiefs/Vikings), and the two new hires Dave DeGuglielmo (Giants/Jets/Dolphins) and Brendan Daly (Rams/Vikings). Some new blood with league experience would be nice.
The Patriots have a lot to learn from the top two teams in the league, and it's not just about copying their success on the field. These two teams have used similar team building techniques that the Patriots have used in the past, and it's time for New England to revert back to its roots. This is a copycat league and it favors those who make the first step, and it's time for Belichick to start marching the team forward in the offseason.