The ending was abrupt, blindsiding the New England Patriots like a free-running blitzer.
It wasn't just that, at 14-2, they had forged the best record in the NFL. It was that they had roared to an 8-0 finish during which they scored no fewer than 31 points in a game.
Along the way, Tom Brady established himself as the clear choice for league MVP. New stars -- with names like Hernandez, Gronkowski and McCourty -- were shining brightly. Patriots fans, many of whom had initially hoped to see promise from a team that looked to be in somewhat of a transition, began to fully expect a run to a fourth Super Bowl victory.
Then, the New York Jets came to town. And when the AFC divisional playoff game was over, the Patriots were left reeling by a 28-21 loss that was more decisive than the margin indicates. Just ask Brady, who was sacked five times by a relentless Jets pass rush.
"It's like you're on the treadmill, running at 10 miles an hour, and then someone just hits the stop button," he said.
Here's a look at some of the key issues the Patriots face after their second consecutive one-and-done playoff appearance and third postseason loss since the 2007 campaign:
1. How do Pats improve pass rush?The Patriots desperately need a pass rusher, likely in the form of an outside linebacker for their 3-4 defense. Mark Sanchez was merely the latest opposing quarterback to consistently have too much time to throw.
The Pats should be able to find at least one pass rusher with their two first-round draft picks -- No. 17, which they acquired from the Oakland Raiders in 2009 for defensive lineman Richard Seymour, and their original No. 28. A player who might be a good fit is Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn, whose size is less than ideal for him to play the same position in the NFL but might be just right for a switch to outside linebacker.
The uncertain labor climate could prevent the Patriots from trying to address that or any other hole in free agency, because a potential lockout would suspend all player movement. But it hasn't been Bill Belichick's style to go into the open market too heavily, although they will have some extra trade capital, thanks to the third-round choice they received from Minnesota earlier in the season for wide receiver Randy Moss.
2. What about the secondary?The Patriots ranked 30th in the NFL against the pass, and they were reminded by the Jets that they don't have enough quality among their defensive backs to hold up against dynamic playmakers such as Jets receivers Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards.
Devin McCourty had a strong rookie year, but a bigger and more physical cornerback could help. The Pats might be wise to take a page from the Jets' defensive model and add a defensive back or two that can manhandle opposing receivers within five yards of the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing of their routes and/or better separate them from the ball.
3. Should Belichick shed offensive coordinator hat?Belichick's coaching effort against the Jets was stunningly bad. Rex Ryan's defense was at least one step ahead the entire the game. Neither Belichick nor Brady could figure out the Jets' mixture of coverages, with various disguises thrown in to make the quarterback think he was seeing something other than what would actually be in place after the snap. Besides causing Brady to throw his first interception since October, the real problems with the Jets' unsolved coverage puzzle were the pressure and sacks resulting from his holding the ball too long.
In addition, there was a fake-punt call that failed and a refusal to pick up their offensive tempo in the fourth quarter.
It seems reasonable to at least ask, then, whether Belichick should not serve as his own offensive coordinator, on top of his duties of running the defense and the entire football operation. Yes, the Patriots' offense did perform exceptionally well in the regular season. But it seems that the last time New England won regularly in the postseason, Belichick had help from offensive coordinators such as Charlie Weis and Josh McDaniels. Given how the competition tends to ramp up for the playoffs, Belichick would be wise to delegate some responsibility and work more collaboratively as he once did.
4. What does the future hold for Mankins, Light and Taylor?Guard Logan Mankins missed training camp and half of the season during a contract dispute. Although he and the Patriots never could come to terms on a long-term contract, he did finally accept a one-year deal the team had offered months earlier and Mankins had an immediate positive impact on the offense. Surprisingly, he even was selected to the Pro Bowl, based on less than a half-season's work. Now it would seem he has gained some leverage in his effort to get a long-term contract.
Veteran offensive tackle Matt Light is a free agent, and after the Jets game, he told reporters that he was unsure whether he would be back for an 11th season in New England.
Running back Fred Taylor, who turns 35 later this month, could be headed for retirement. He struggled to see action behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead.
5. Is Welker in any trouble?It would be almost unimaginable to think of the Patriots even considering parting ways with wide receiver Wes Welker, and by no means should this be viewed as a suggestion that they should. But one has to think that he might spend at least a portion of his offseason in Belichick's doghouse in light of the fact that he was kept on the sidelines for the Patriots' first offensive series against the Jets, presumably for disciplinary reasons.
While Ryan and cornerback Antonio Cromartie did some trash talking in the media, Belichick had warned his team not to say anything in retaliation. He insisted, as always, that the Patriots take the high road. However, Welker apparently couldn't help himself, and during a news conference made nearly a dozen subtle "foot" references, which were seen as a direct jab at Ryan for his reported part in a foot-fetish controversy involving his wife.
Belichick refused to comment on why Welker didn't start, but the bottom line is that the Patriots' top receiver defied a direct order from his coach. The last top receiver believed to have challenged Belichick's authority was Moss.