I was really hoping that I was done writing these this season.
Alas, the Patriots lost to the Broncos in the AFC Championship on Sunday, and it's time to close the books on the 2015 season. It didn't end the way we were all hoping, but more often than not, it doesn't. Not much else to do besides accept it and move on.
Still, there are plenty of reasons for optimism heading into the offseason and next year. This wasn't one of those sell-out seasons where the Patriots put all their hopes into this season and now they're screwed. Here are five positives we can all take with us as we get ready to break down the Combine, the Draft, Free Agency, and all the other good stuff that comes with getting ready for a new league year.
Pats will be back. While most of what you're going to read this offseason is likely going to focus on the ever-closing window for Tom Brady and how much the gap in the AFC East has been narrowed and how Belichick the GM never does Belichick the coach any favors, I'm going to let history be my guide and say that the Patriots have an excellent chance of being right back in the mix next year. This isn't a scenario where we're all miserable because who knows when this team will get another shot at the Super Bowl again; the answer to that question is "2016." Yeah, it didn't end the way we were hoping, but for 31 teams in the league that's the case as well. Losses like this are always easier to swallow when you know another opportunity to be in the exact same spot is less than a year away.
Core remains intact. New England is in fantastic shape this offseason and have no big names to worry about keeping in terms of free agency. Other than Tommy B, this is an extremely young and talented team on both sides of the ball, and all of the playmakers on offense and defense will be back in 2016 - with the same coaching staff to boot. Whenever a team can maintain some consistency year to year and not have any key guys depart for other teams, it means that they can come into the offseason already better off than many. The Patriots can now turn their attention on long-term deals for guys they hope to retain without the pressure of Free Agency deadlines as well as signing players who will make the team better for next year (come on, Megatron. It makes all the sense in the world. Let's do this). I'm extremely excited for this upcoming offseason.
Carolina is going to be a tough out. I'm not going to lie: I didn't feel overly confident that the 2015 Patriots could beat the 2015 Panthers. They are an incredibly complete team with a great defense and a strong, mobile quarterback and a lot of momentum coming into this game. They absolutely obliterated the Cardinals, and put up 31 on the Seahawks in approximately 45 seconds before taking their foot off the gas and letting them back into it.That isn't to say that the Patriots had no shot of winning, but had they won this game I would have been spending the next two weeks a nervous wreck trying to figure out how Belichick was going to account for Cam Newton and whether this offensive line can hold up against the Carolina pass rush and whether Panthers fans are still upset over the 2003 Super Bowl and all that good stuff. And as we know all too well, an AFC Championship loss is much, much easier to get over than a Super Bowl loss. Again, I don't want it to seem like I'm immediately conceding defeat here or anything like that, but given that whichever AFC team came out of the conference was going to have its hands full with the NFC, that also makes the Broncos game easier to deal with. Which leads me to...
Now we can all relax. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: whenever the Patriots season ends, be it December, January, or February, part of me always breathes a huge sigh of relief. These seasons take it out of me. They're stressful. They're a lot of extra work in terms of coverage and analysis. They're nerve-wracking. They entirely consume one of the two days off I get per week and make travel, social obligations, and basically being a normal human being very difficult for five straight months. I wouldn't trade any of it for the world, but I'd be lying if I said that part of my thought process as I come down off the last game of the year wasn't "now I can get my life back." Is that a healthy attitude? Hell no. But I feel like I established a long time ago that I'm way too far down the rabbit hole at this point to come back, so it is what it is. I'm looking forward to Sundays outside and not having to deal with any football drama for a few months. I'll be raring to go soon enough, but for right now I feel like a weight has been lifted. Especially since...
We won it all last year. Repeating as Super Bowl champions is extremely hard to do, as evidenced by the lack of repeat champs since New England in 2003-2004. That New England made it to yet another AFC Championship game, its fifth straight, and we're still all sitting here this morning acting like the Patriots blew the entire season is a wonderful testament to how spoiled we all are as fans. The Pats can't win it every single year; that's just reality. They are still the World Champs and will be for at least a few more weeks, and as far as I'm concerned anything extra that the Brady/Belichick-led Patriots do following last year's win is just icing on the cake. It's tough to get too despondent losing in the AFC Championship when you literally just won the Super Bowl.
So those are my five positives to cap off another fantastic Patriots season. But I have one more that I feel obligated to share with everyone, because transparency has always been my thing. Sorry about this, folks. I don't really know how it happened.
I'm kind of rooting for Manning now. I know, I know. I can't believe it either, and I don't really like it. It feels weird and I'm not really sure how I'm supposed to act. And if it means I now have to turn in my Homer Card, then so be it. But I'd be lying if I said that I'm not kind of rooting for Peyton Manning to get one more ring and go out on top. It's a nice story and a great end for a man who has undeniably made my football watching experience more enjoyable over the past 15 years. He's one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game. He was a joy to watch. He's a genuinely nice guy. And with last year's win from Brady coupled with this year's performance from Manning, the book has already closed on the Brady vs. Manning debate. Tommy B has four rings and was literally two plays away from having six. He has gotten better with each season. He finished the race strong. The debate is over, and Tommy B won. So let Peyton get two rings and erase the game-sealing pick-six and the utter embarrassment that sullied his last two SB appearances. Denver has a good track record of sending a Hall of Fame QB into the sunset on the highest of notes, and should the Broncos take home a Lombardi trophy in a few weeks, I'm going to be happy to see it. Greatness is greatness at the end of the day, and life is too short to waste on pettiness.