A few leftover Patriots thoughts in the wake of the AFC Championship Game loss as we look ahead to the team-building season:
1. Key players didn't come through: While some have taken the viewpoint that the Patriots' injuries finally caught up to them, I keep coming back to the fact that it was actually some of their top players who had been there since Day 1 that didn't come through. Center Ryan Wendell's struggles were at the root of the run-game struggles. Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins whiffed on a fourth-down block that ended a long drive in the third quarter. Starting left tackle Nate Solder gave up a sack on an inside move. Quarterback Tom Brady couldn't hit the long ball when receivers were wide open. To me, this was the most disappointing part for the Patriots. So while part of the current narrative is "Brady needs more weapons," I don't think that's what led to the Patriots' loss. After giving the Broncos credit, I think this was more about the Patriots' core players who had been there from the start not delivering in the big moment.
2. Knighton was best defender on the field: When did Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton morph into Ndamukong Suh? The fifth-year pro from Temple was the best defensive player on the field and was, from this viewpoint, the single biggest key in shutting down the Patriots' run game. I haven't watched Knighton too much, but I'm guessing that was the best game of his career. I think his dominating performance, primarily against Wendell, is one that will have the Patriots questioning if the heady but undersized Wendell is a player they want to invest in long term as a No. 1 option.
3. More on the lack of a pass rush. There were times when the Patriots could have put more heat on Peyton Manning, who was marvelous. There is no doubt about that. But it's important to note that the ends (Chandler Jones/Rob Ninkovich) who often apply pressure were also asked to do plenty of chipping on players like tight end Julius Thomas, which meant the Patriots were willing to sacrifice an initial rush in hopes of disrupting the rhythm of the passing game with jams. Thus, the biggest issue I saw with pressure was up the middle, which is the best way to get to Manning. Defensive tackle Sealver Siliga is more of a run-stuffer and his presence was important to protect against the draw play, but rookie defensive tackle Chris Jones (more of a penetrating 3 technique) really only showed up once in the pass rush, drawing a hold. That's the one area where I thought the injuries finally caught up to the Patriots.
4. Bill Belichick really does turn the page quickly. The Patriots' coach wasn't kidding when he said Monday that the team was now in "2014." He was already in Mobile, Ala., for the Senior Bowl on Tuesday. So much for taking a mental break after the grind of the 2013 season.
5. Belichick's suggestions picking up momentum: Interesting to have listened during the regular season to Belichick suggest that all plays be reviewable, and also that the NFL should eliminate the point after attempt, and now have momentum picking up for that to happen. His knowledge and love for the on-field product is of great value to the league. Belichick's on a roll -- maybe now is the time to revisit his idea to put a tennis-like camera in the pylons that helps give a good look at the most important part of the field.
6. How Welker's action was different from Edelman's and Hoomanawanui's: The Patriots run pick plays or rub routes like other teams, but I don't think it's a fair comparison to say what Wes Welker did on the play Aqib Talib was injured was the same thing as Julian Edelman (block on Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie) or Michael Hoomanawanui (penalized for offensive pass interference). Edelman was blocking well after Austin Collie had caught the ball, so that's not offensive pass interference or a pick. Hoomanawanui was blocking before the ball was thrown, so the penalty was correctly called, but the rate of speed was noticeably different. He downshifted considerably. Welker's action was full speed, and if Belichick decided to go into more detail as to what he didn't like about the play (he declined, leaving everyone to interpret his remarks for him), I think that's the part he'd focus on.