Rocky Mountain High atop the AFC

What if?

What if Wes Welker and the New England Patriots had reached an agreement last February? Danny Woodhead? What if Aaron Hernandez wasn’t an alleged murderer? What if Vince Wilfork was healthy? Jerod Mayo? Sebastian Vollmer? Tommy Kelly? Rob Gronkowski? What if Aqib Talib hadn’t been injured by Wes Welker in the AFC Championship Game? These are the questions that will haunt Patriots fans until the start of training camp. If a year where so many “what ifs” broke the wrong way for them, there was still a lot to love about what they accomplished.

Peyton Manning is going to play in his third Super Bowl instead of Tom Brady getting to play in his sixth. The Denver Broncos are going for their third franchise Super Bowl title instead of the Patriots going for their fourth. Peyton will get to play for the the top of the football mountain in his little brother’s city and home stadium in two weeks. At 37 years of age, he’s put together one of the best seasons a quarterback could ever have. He proved today that sometimes the best defense is offense by maintaining possession of the ball for so long that Tom Brady could never get in any kind of rhythm. The Pats started the second half playing from behind, but the 3rd quarter was halfway finished before Brady even got to touch the ball. It was one of those days. The Pats had made improbable comebacks on a few occasions this season, including the biggest one against the Broncos in New England, but it wasn’t going to happen today.

The window is closing on the Manning/Brady Era, but we’ve been saying that for a solid five years now, so I’m not going to speculate about when it will slam shut. Both teams should be contenders again next year, but the new wave of superstar quarterbacks are already here. First there was Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Eli Manning. Now it’s Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III who are knocking on the door. Before we know it, Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Football will be in the mix as well. They’ll meet again in the regular season for sure, since they both won their divisions this season, but this was their first meeting in the playoffs since January of 2007, when the Pats played their last road playoff game before today and lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts. A game like this might never come again.

The Patriots need to address some issues on defense. The secondary shouldn’t rely so heavily on Talib that Pats fans spend eight months what iffing for eight months about back to back AFC Championship Games. The offense should be better with a healthy Gronk, but that’s something that seems to get said every year, too. At some point, Bill Belichick will need to draft Tom Brady’s successor, and maybe that year is this year. Aaron Rodgers was Brett Favre’s understudy for a few years, and Steve Young did the same for Joe Montana. If the Pats want to contend in life after Brady, they should look into doing the same. You can’t rely on getting lucky (pun intended) in the draft like the Colts did.

Another Patriots season is over, and the result is not the desired one, but at least they were in it, despite all the reasons they had not to be.

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