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January 21. 2013 9:52PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Tweaks needed, but still great expectations


New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez (81) is unable to make the catch in the first half of the AFC championship game against the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium. (Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports)
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- TWELVE HOURS LATER, not much had changed for Bill Belichick. By Monday morning he'd taken the time to view the video of Sunday night's AFC Championship game, but it merely confirmed what he'd seen from the sideline.

Same missed opportunities for his Patriots. Same regrettable execution. And, of course, same result: a 28-13 win for the Ravens.

But in those 12 hours there was one thing that changed for the Patriots' coach. His perspective.

"On balance, I still thought that certainly there were a lot of positives from this football team," Belichick said. "It's a team that I enjoyed coaching. I thought that the players worked hard behind the scenes; everybody doesn't see that, but on a day-to-day basis they worked hard, they competed well, they didn't make excuses. They got better over the course of the season, both individually and collectively.

"We wouldn't have gotten to where we were without a lot of good, consistent performances from a lot of people in a number of games and countless practices and meetings and all the things that lead up to that. That part of it, I thought there were, again, a lot of positives that we accomplished."

Belichick wasn't interested in positives or accomplishments on Sunday night, when after missing a chance to get back to the Super Bowl, especially after letting it happen on home turf in a game his team was favored to win, he seemed expectedly sour. His refusal to do a post-game interview with CBS was instantly criticized as petulant, and cast as further proof that he's a sore loser.

But by the time he got back in front of the microphones Monday morning, Belichick said he was "on to next year." And with that turning of the page seemingly came a more pragmatic view, and with it a reminder that his Patriots are still in excellent shape moving forward - particularly if they can find a way to plug the few persistent holes that have doomed them in the playoffs the past few postseasons.

Following an eliminating loss the instinct is always to panic, especially in football, where the one-and-done nature magnifies everything. But as ugly as Sunday might have been, it's important that New England's fans and front office alike realize that this team is as close to championship-caliber as it has been since 2007, and now is no time to leap from the bandwagon or to start making sweeping changes.

Even though last year's club led Super Bowl XLVI into the final minutes, this edition was better, and the foundation is now stronger. In Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower and Alfonzo Dennard, they've added three impactful rookies on defense. Rob Ninkovich and Brandon Spikes have emerged as forceful players in the front seven. Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo deserved their Pro Bowl distinctions.

The youngest defense of Belichick's 13 seasons in Foxborough showed significant growth as the season progressed - specifically on third down, and general stability - and the offense scored 76 more points than any other team despite having its full complement of talent available for only the season opener. If Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez return to full health, if Stevan Ridley is as good as 1,263 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns suggests, and if an offensive line that got younger this year can continue to gel, there's no reason to think Tom Brady's production will dip at age 36.

And so after 13 wins - and incurring three of their five losses against the Super Bowl combatants - there's no reason expectations should slide at all next season.

"Can't wait for the season to start," Wilfork said less than an hour after the last one ended. "I think we have what it takes to be a championship team. . I feel good about this team, so I'm looking forward to next year and getting this thing rolling again and starting from ground zero and moving forward and trying to get it done the right way."

Before then, however, the Patriots do have some questions to answer in terms of personnel. That process begins with their own players, as several key contributors - including Wes Welker, Aqib Talib, Julian Edelman, Sebastian Vollmer, Patrick Chung and Kyle Arrington - could test free agency.

Welker could play under the franchise tag again, if he doesn't sign a long-term deal, so look for him to return. After him, Talib should be the next-highest priority, given the way he stabilized the secondary, though he could chase a payday elsewhere. Vollmer and Edelman fit well, and make sense, if the price is right for a player who is perpetually banged up. And while they'd take Arrington to cover the slot and kicks for short money, Chung is all but gone.

What has to factor in to all of New England's personnel choices, however, is the end game. Over the past six seasons the Patriots have won 76 regular-season games - but only five playoff contests and no titles. Furthermore, they've repeatedly been eliminated in the same type of tilt, one in which the opponent is physical and full of swagger, the offense uncharacteristically struggles, the defense can't force turnovers, and the team can't close.

Maybe they need a deep-threat receiver to diversify the attack. Maybe they need more cornerbacks. Maybe they need one more nasty type in the trenches. Maybe they need better leaders. Or maybe they need more Bruschi-, Harrison-, Vrabel-types who get mentally tougher as the moment gets bigger.

"Certainly every individual is important, but collectively it has to be looked at in context of the entire team, and that process takes a little thought," Belichick said - and reasonably so. If the answers were easily identifiable, his team would be readying for New Orleans. Sunday night those opportunities, that execution, the result would've all been different.

And, come Monday morning, so would've been perspectives all across New England.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.

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