The Patriots' season started off the field with "Deflategate." It ended with a deflating loss on it.
In the middle, New England at times resembled the same unflappable, tunnel-vision team that earned its fourth Super Bowl title one year ago.
But the lasting memories of the 2015 season will likely be its humbling conclusion. One marred by injuries, mistakes and questionable decision making that derailed the Patriots' attempt to be the first team to repeat as champions since they did in the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
“We did a lot of good things, won a lot of games and came up short in the end. It's bittersweet.”Patriots coach Bill Belichick
"We did a lot of good things, won a lot of games and came up short in the end. It's bittersweet," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said on Monday, the morning after his team's 20-18 AFC championship game loss to the Denver Broncos.
The year began with quarterback Tom Brady tarred, then unchained from a suspension on the heels of cheating allegations in the scandal known as "Deflategate."
Brady and the Patriots seized on that momentum and played like a team in a time machine, running off 10 straight victories before Thanksgiving weekend. Brady looked like the early-season MVP during the stretch, throwing for 25 touchdowns and more than 3,000 yards.
Receiver Matthew Slater said the team tried to rally behind their quarterback during the scandal.
"Certainly that was a motivating factor for us. But it wasn't just for him, it was for the whole football team," he said. "A lot of guys went through a lot this year. Maybe not as highly-publicized as what Tom went through. But a lot of guys went through things.
"There's a lot to be said for what we were able to accomplish and where we got ourselves this year."
For his part, Brady seemed to be already focused on 2016.
"I want to win it every year. I'd love to finish in the last game of the year and win it," Brady said Sunday night. "It's a pretty tough thing to do. Hopefully I have more opportunities for that. This team fought really hard, we just came up short."
Here's a look at some takeaways from 2015 as the Patriots head into the offseason:
Whatever the ultimate culprit of the Patriots shortcomings this season, several questions trail the Patriots as they begin the offseason. One of persistent ones will be about the coaching future of Belichick, who turns 64 in April. He's previously said that immediately following a season is not the time to make snap judgments of any kind. He repeated that on Monday. "Absolutely. The emotion of the game is still with all of us. But the process still has to start," he said. "So we'll start it and do things in the normal course that we do."
Plagued By Injuries
As good as New England played early, injuries began to take their toll late. Brady lost one of his most reliable targets when receiver Julian Edelman broke a foot in the Nov. 15 win over the New York Giants. He missed the final seven games of the regular season. The Patriots went 3-4 without him.
The offensive line also began to show signs of wear with two members of its rotation going on injured reserve prior to Week 6. Only once in the regular season did the Patriots start the same offensive line two games in a row. They were able to do it in both playoff games, but the unit was woefully outplayed in the AFC championship game in allowing Brady to be sacked four times and knocked down several more times.
The injuries weren't restricted to the offense. For the season New England had 14 players in injured reserve.
"That's part of football," Belichick said. "Whichever ones you have, you have, and you try to do the best you can to prevent them, try to do the best you can to get them back."
No Blame Game
Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski's missed extra-point following New England's first touchdown of the game against the Broncos Sunday turned out to be pivotal.
The miss left the Patriots needing to convert on a two-point conversion after closing to within two points in the final seconds. They failed.
"Steve's a great kicker, he had a great year for us," Belichick said. "I think every player, coach and participant in the game wishes there was a couple things they could have done differently. I feel that way. Everybody I've talked to feels that way."