The Patriots 2022 season came to an end in Buffalo for the second year in a row on Sunday as New England capped off their fourth-straight campaign without a playoff victory and missed the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
For their part, the Pats put forth one of their better efforts of the season against a Bills team that has now beaten them four-straight times and in six of the last seven meetings. Couple Buffalo's recent dominance with the events surrounding Damar Hamlin last week and few gave the Patriots much of a chance to break the trend, but it was still a disappointing cap to the year. The Patriots flirted with a .500 record for much of the season and ultimately went down the same way they often did, amidst a collection of whack-a-mole mistakes that all seemed to rear their heads at different inopportune times.
"Our record is right around .500, which is what it's been kind of all year," summed up Bill Belichick on Monday morning in his season-ending Zoom appearance. "With that, some good things and some not-so-good things, so nobody's satisfied with that. That's not our goal and we need to try to improve on that, we need to improve on it. So that's all of us. Accountability everywhere. Starting with me, the coaching staff, players, and each unit are all things that we will address. That process will start probably later today."
Two kickoff return touchdowns and two big-play touchdowns accounted for all but one of Buffalo's scores. Mac Jones' first three-touchdown performance of the season wasn't enough to keep pace with the quick-strike Bills who continued to torture the Patriots with a variety of "wow" plays. Even with the defense getting their first interception off of Josh Allen since 2020 and two additional forced fumbles that resulted in takeaways, the Patriots couldn't make things interesting until the end, a common failure this year where they collapsed with potential victory in sight.
This embodied a season of fits and starts and a team that seemed to play their sloppiest in the biggest moments.
While it was a more impressive showing than 2021's season-ending 30-point defeat that never saw the Bills punt, the Patriots still find themselves in a similar position to where they were a year ago, asking similar questions and now looking up at both the Bills and Dolphins in the division standings. 2022 featured just one win over this year's playoff teams, last week's victory over the quarterback-depleted Dolphins, as they've found themselves unable to get over the hump against the best teams in the league. In many ways, this feels like a three-year trend, one that has seen the Patriots beat up on plenty of bad teams or ones dramatically altered by injuries, but unable to notch the kind of defining win where they put it all together against a quality opponent at full strength.
Now, the offseason begins with building questions as to what comes next for a franchise now four seasons removed from their championship ways.
While any coaching staff additions, departures and reconfigurations should be among the first things to happen in the coming weeks, there are plenty of other concrete areas to highlight where change could occur. It starts with the free agents, headlined by important starters Jakobi Meyers and Jonathan Jones, as well as long-time leaders Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater. McCourty and Slater's potential retirements could have a dramatic effect on the locker room as the turnover from the championship days continues.
Meyers and Jones were among the most reliable players this year and should command interest on the open market. Whether re-signing or replacing them, there are no easy slam dunks.
Tackle Isaiah Wynn and running back Damien Harris will also be free agents and areas where the team will need to address. In all, it would appear that New England will need significant new additions or re-signings at wide receiver, tackle and cornerback to start, three important positions that could each elevate the Patriots beyond their 2022 performance.
They should have some room to operate, with Pats Cap guru Miguel Benzan projecting the team to have approximately $37-40 million of cap space to use. While that might not be enough for another 2021-esque spending spree on external free agents, consideration should also be given to extensions for players entering the final years of their deals like Kyle Dugger, Michael Onwenu and Josh Uche, all of whom had solid years with Dugger chipping in three defensive scores and Uche breaking out with 11.5 sacks.
In April the team is projected to have up to 11 picks that could include as many as three compensatory picks. Their 14th overall draft slot in the first round is their highest position since 2008 and there's plenty of ammo behind that to make any necessary moves to pick up impact players who fit in New England and can make impacts sooner than later.
With dissatisfaction permeating the Patriots post-season wrap-ups, it's clear that there will be some significant change in 2023. But the cupboards aren't empty with a number of recent draft hits that are forming a new core in New England. Add in some less restrictive cap space and enough draft capital to make even more young impact additions and the potential is in place to break the middling funk of the last three years.
"We'll begin to turn the page, and move on to do the things and start to do the things that we feel like we need to do to improve our team, be more competitive and have better results," said Belichick, who also confirmed his intention to return for his 24th season with the team. "So, that hasn't started yet. We're still in the wake of yesterday's game. So, that's kind of where we are for right now. However, that goes, I'm sure they'll be a number of different aspects to that. But as we do every year, evaluate everything, and try to make the best decisions we can to move forward, to be more competitive, to have a stronger team in the future. So, Robert [Kraft] and I will talk about that, talk about that as a staff and certainly individual conversations with many of the players, as we always do, well, all the players but there's some that are obviously more urgent or will be more timely than others. But it'll be a comprehensive course of action as it always is. I don't see the process being really any different, but we need to have better results. That's really the bottom line."