They may have overachieved with rookies and unproven free agents playing key roles, but they were overmatched when they ran into the best offense in the NFL.
So on Monday,
''I'm proud of this group of guys,'' safety
The Patriots (13-5) saved their worst game for the most important one, losing 26-16 to the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
The defense allowed 507 yards, the most in Bill Belichick's 14 seasons as Patriots coach.
It was a ''deliberate play by the receiver to take out Aqib,'' Belichick said Monday.
Not so, Denver coach John Fox said.
''Wes Welker's a great player, high integrity,'' he said. ''We were not doing anything with intent.''
Welker would still be with the Patriots if they hadn't let him leave in free agency before the season. Now they face the same decision with other valuable players - Talib, Blount, wide receiver
''I'm not even thinking about that right now,'' Edelman said. ''I'm thinking about the fellas in this locker room, the coaches, all the hard work we put in and this season.''
The Patriots can ill afford to lose Edelman, their only receiver with more than 54 catches. And they certainly can use a deep threat.
The only player who clearly filled that role in Tom Brady's 14 seasons with the team was Randy Moss, a Patriot for just three full seasons before being traded four games into the 2010 season. Four of their top five receivers from 2012 weren't with the team this season.
The running back group is solid, although
The biggest dropoff came at tight end where the Patriots lost the best duo in the NFL -
In their places,
Gronkowski might miss the start of the season for the second straight year after tearing ligaments in his right knee in the 13th game. He had missed the first six games this season while recovering from left forearm and back surgery.
Injuries hit the defense harder with tackles
''We should be proud of what we did'' on defense, safety
Free agent pickups
And the Patriots made it nine straight seasons without a Super Bowl championship after winning three in four years.
''A lot of guys that had to play a lot of football this year will be back next year,'' McCourty said. ''Hopefully, they learn from it and we will be a better team next year.''
Meanwhile, Belichick will get over his disappointment and spend much of the offseason planning for that.
''I'll be OK,'' he said. ''I'll take all my frustrations out at Pebble Beach, see if I can hit the ball over the water instead of into it for a change.''