Patriots' best years are behind them

When the good times end in the very near future, New England Patriots fans will remember this week as a turning point. They will look at Tom Brady's decision to restructure his contract as the first indication that this team isn't as talented as it once was. They also will see that AFC Championship Game loss to Baltimore as additional evidence of an overrated franchise. Worst of all, they will see that their team's real dominance ended about five years ago. Everything since that point has been misleading.

The good news for Patriots Nation is that it probably has another season or two to savor the brilliance of Brady and the genius of coach Bill Belichick. After that, this whole operation will go south in a hurry. You could see the frustration in Brady's eyes as the Ravens whipped New England in the second half of that conference title game. This wasn't the team he was used to leading. It didn't even look as if it deserved to be within one game of another Super Bowl.

It was apparent in that moment that the Patriots had to improve their roster if they wanted to challenge for another championship. Brady seemed to acknowledge that when he reworked his contract into a more cap-friendly deal (even though he guaranteed himself a nice windfall over the lifetime of that extension). The surefire Hall of Fame quarterback realized he had to create opportunities for Belichick to add more playmakers to the roster. New England had gone far too long relying on Brady to carry an offense filled with largely marginal talent.

That, by the way, is the biggest flaw with the Patriots these days. Instead of sticking with the balanced approach that led to three Super Bowl wins between 2001 and 2004, New England has been all-in with Brady ever since the 2007 season. This team's chances have hinged on his greatness, and the overall results haven't been nearly as impressive as in the good old days. Sure, the Patriots' offense has been dazzling when at its best. But the team's inability to snare another Vince Lombardi Trophy has been just as noteworthy during that time.

The Patriots are still among the best in the league. But their flaws often go unnoticed until late in the postseason, as if we're still waiting for that dominant team of years ago to re-emerge. In truth, their more recent success has plenty to do with competing in a weak division. Baltimore and Denver already look like better teams than New England next season, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Houston give it more of a challenge.

The offense has a few troubling issues, most notably at wide receiver. The Patriots seem to have had a revolving door at that position the past couple of years. No true deep threats have emerged since Randy Moss left town in 2010, and slot receiver Wes Welker also isn't as clutch as he used to be (see: loss to New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI). The most startling sight in this year's AFC title game was the way the Patriots labored on offense. Their biggest play in that contest came on a gimmick screen Welker turned into a 36-yard gain.

It was obvious in that loss how different the offense is without Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski. People like to talk about the tandem of him and fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez, but Gronk is the true star. The problem is that he's been injured late in the season twice, and his hard-partying lifestyle makes him a headline waiting to happen every offseason. Everybody in the New England organization must be holding his breath whenever Gronk gets anywhere near pulsating music, a strobe light and a well-stocked bar.

Finally, there's that defense. It used to be the one constant you'd associate with a Belichick-coached team. He was a master at shutting teams down, making the most of savvy veterans and giving his offense a chance to play to his strengths. Now the Patriots have the kind of weaknesses that are easy to cover up because they're often playing with the lead. The most pressing are the lack of a consistent pass rush and a secondary that improved only after the team traded for cornerback Aqib Talib, whose checkered past already makes the franchise leery of signing him to a long-term contract.

Maybe the cap room Brady's new deal opened up will help the Patriots ease some of those concerns. Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed has been rumored to be an attractive target in free agency, and it's likely that Belichick will make a run at him. But let's also be honest here -- that defense isn't one great player from being dominant. It was compromised the moment Talib left the AFC title game with a hamstring injury suffered in the first quarter.

Brady's restructuring also tells us something else important about the Patriots: This offseason is crucial to their future. They've whiffed on some notable acquisitions in recent years (especially Chad Johnson and Albert Haynesworth), and they can't afford to make those mistakes again. This team was masterful at adding productive veterans when it was starting its dynasty in 2001. Belichick needs to regain that magic touch if another Lombardi trophy is to be had anytime soon.

It's hard to see that happening. Sure, the Patriots will be good for at least 10-12 wins as long as Brady is around. But there are no great free-agent bargains to be had in the way New England nabbed Moss in 2007. The team's star quarterback is also turning 36 this August. Brady understands better than anybody that time is waning in his quest for a fourth Super Bowl ring.

At some point, all great players can see whether they're playing on a team that has the goods to win a championship or are merely on a respectable contender. It wasn't until this past year that the Patriots proved they're actually in the latter category these days. That's a tough place to be when you've been used to dominating for so long. Unfortunately for New England fans, it's hard to see anything more than that before Brady eventually calls it a career.