The Patriots had covered their defensive warts that plagued them through the season's first half and were poised to make a playoff run. They even had the clamps on Denver's vaunted rushing attack before they started handing the ball over to the Broncos in a 27-13 playoff loss that left them wondering "what if?"
So the Patriots head to the postseason having lost their last game for the first time since 2000 and have some questions that must be answered. The first surrounds the coaching staff. The future of 34-year-old first-year defensive coordinator Eric Mangini has already been determined. He interviewed for the Jets head-coaching job the day after loss in Denver. Mangini seemed to lack the experience to be a head coach, but the Jets were enamored with his ties to Bill Belichick and Jets assistant GM Mike Tannenbaum. Enamored enough to offer him the job almost immediately after Mike Tice left the building.
A year after losing both coordinators -- Romeo Crennel to the Browns and Charlie Weis to Notre Dame -- Belichick had to fill out his staff once again.
The leading candidate for promotion came from within. Linebackers coach Dean Pees was given the job minutes after the Jets announced Mangini as their guy. Pees has only been on Belichick's staff for two years after working earlier in his career as an assistant under Belichick protégé and current Dolphins coach Nick Saban at Michigan State. Other staff members were considered, but Pees' resume coupled with his three decades of work as a coach and the fact that Saban wanted Pees in Miami proved to be the deciding factors.
Beyond that, the Patriots need to look at adding some quality depth in the secondary and at receiver while looking to continue getting younger on defense, particularly at linebacker where no one is ready to step in for thirtysomethings Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi.
Veteran wideout Troy Brown may be at the end of the line and the Patriots lacked any consistent threat behind Deion Branch and David Givens at the position. Bethel Johnson, a 2003 second round pick, has not developed and despite crazy speed, could be out. Givens will also test unrestricted free agency this year and will undoubtedly be looking for the most money rather than considering any hometown discount.
The secondary could use an infusion of talent as well. Without Rodney Harrison on the field, it struggled for much of the year. Harrison faces a long rehab following reconstructive knee surgery. It's unknown if he'll be ready for the start of training camp.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
The front seven became its dominant self over the second half of the season when Richard Seymour and Tedy Bruschi returned to the lineup and Vince Wilfork became a force at nose tackle. Seymour, Wilfork and Ty Warren -- all first round defensive linemen -- remain under contract and Wilfork's dramatic improvement as a two-gap nose tackle gives the Patriots something to build around.
Their play along with that of Bruschi and Mike Vrabel, who moved to inside linebacker out of necessity, helped the defense improve from one of the worst run defending teams through the first half to one of the best by season's end.
WHAT NEEDS ATTENTION
Belichick needs to work on improving a secondary that was very vulnerable when the front seven wasn't dominating. Sure, six Patriots defensive backs finished the season on injured reserve, but only one was a sure impact player. Tyrone Poole has now missed most of the last two seasons and is likely gone. This should be an area the Patriots spend money on in the offseason.
The running game needs work as well. Corey Dillon battled nagging injuries all season and despite taking offense to questions regarding his age/production ratio, he never looked close to the back that gained more than 1,600 yards in 2004. He looked slow and indecisive. The Patriots need to look for a young runner in the draft to either replace Dillon next season or at least push him and become his eventual replacement.
Also, with Troy Brown considering retirement and David Givens set to test free agency, the Patriots need to address the receiver position. Andre Davis is nothing more than an occasional deep threat and Tim Dwight provided little punch. The cupboard is nearly bare at this position and with Dillon coming off an off year, Brady could be wondering if he'll have any weapons in 2006.
Five turnovers led directly to 24 Denver points and it was too much for the normally mistake-free Patriots to overcome. New England actually outplayed Denver without the turnovers, but its charity and the Broncos' ability to quickly take advantage of their good fortune led to a 27-13 Denver win.
Leading 3-0 with two minutes to go in the half, Patriots running back Kevin Faulk fumbled at his own 40 and one controversial 39-yard pass interference penalty later, Mike Anderson was plunging in from the 1 for a 7-3 lead. The Patriots then fumbled the ensuing kickoff, leading to a Broncos field goal and a 10-3 lead.
Champ Bailey's 100-yard interception return of an errant Tom Brady pass set up another touchdown and Troy Brown's muffed punt at his own 15 led to another Broncos touchdown. But Brady, despite throwing for 341 yards, had an off day thanks mostly to Denver's consistent pass pressure, and the Patriots couldn't overcome it.