Five biggest Patriots disappointments
1. Tough year for availability
This was perhaps the most glaring reason for New England's eventual ousting. Not necessarily because they were a shell of themselves in the AFC title game -- although had players like Sebastian Vollmer (ankle), Julian Edelman (foot) and Danny Amendola (knee) been at full strength, perhaps they'd be in Santa Clara on Sunday -- but because of every nick they endured over the course of the season that very likely helped them lose games. To go without Nate Solder after Week 5 and Dion Lewis after Week 9 spelled disaster for New England's offense during the stretch run and into the conference final. I don't believe anyone could be blamed for the 21 players who ended up on season-ending injured reserve, which was the fourth-highest total in the league. How can you prevent someone from falling awkwardly on Vollmer's lower leg or Edelman's foot? But the number of injuries suffered -- especially after being so healthy by comparison in 2014 -- had to have been a disappointment for the Patriots in 2015.
2. Lack of a consistent starting five on the offensive line
Things went south on this group toward the end of the season due to what seemed like a handful of factors, particularly injuries, inexperience, and matchups against some very talented defensive lines. Everything is relative, of course. The Patriots had an offensive line that was strong enough through 10 weeks of the season to keep the team undefeated and producing as the most effective offenses in football. Then they ran into a buzz saw. Without the threat of a running game, and while dealing with injuries, the line struggled to maintain its early-season pace. Just look at New England's losses: First it was Von Miller and the Broncos, then Fletcher Cox and the Eagles, then Sheldon Richardson and the Jets, and Olivier Vernon and the Dolphins. They all more than did their part in beating up Tom Brady. Due to injuries to Bryan Stork, Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon, Shaq Mason, Tre' Jackson, Josh Kline and Vollmer never allowed the Patriots to find a consistent set of five protectors, something that coach Bill Belichick lamented a handful of times over the course of the season. That came back to haunt them, it seemed, in Denver when the crowd noise limited communication at the line and forced some non-verbal communication. After Patriots fans saw the offensive line come together after a rocky start to begin 2014, the expectation was that something similar may occur with this group despite its late-season struggles. That it didn't could certainly be labeled a disappointment. But there's clearly promise in next year's group. Solder and Vollmer will be back to man the edges. Mason and Jackson both appeared to be comfortable in the assignments handed to them by the second half of the regular season; they should only grow in their second seasons. Kline was perhaps the team's most consistent lineman before suffering a shoulder injury against the Eagles, and he was rewarded with a new contract for his efforts. At center, the team has two capable young players as well, with David Andrews putting forth an impressive campaign in his rookie season after going undrafted out of Georgia. Disappointing as this group's performance may have been near the season's end, the pieces are in place for a bounce-back. The only question now is, who's going to coach them?
3. Production from outside receivers
In 2014, the Patriots offense had an answer for almost anything thrown its way. It could hit the short-to-intermediate routes. It had a pass-catching running back that could take advantage of mismatches in coverages. It had a power back who ran over defenses daring him to run. It had the game's best tight end, and it had a wide receiver who could block in the running game and make plays when called upon in the passing game? This year, though, that kind of outside answer was found most consistently when the Patriots opted to line up Gronkowski there. After coming off of PUP to start the year, LaFell never exactly seemed like himself. He dropped more than he'd like to remember against the Jets in his first game back. In his last four, he caught just six passes on 10 targets for 32 yards. And for the second consecutive year, Aaron Dobson was not a viable threat on the outside. It's a spot that could be addressed in the offseason if the team feels as though it doesn't have the personnel to compete out there as the roster presently stands.
4. Special teams depth
Chris Harper's muffed punt helped cost the Patriots a win in Week 11. Geneo Grissom's missed block on a punt helped lead to a scoop-and-score touchdown. The special teams mistakes were few and far between for a team that focuses much of its energy on playing cleanly in that area. But when mistakes were made, Patriots opponents made them pay. The Patriots wouldn't break up the blame pie this way, but errors in the kicking game likely cost them a game or two, and potentially homefield advantage in the playoffs. From the team's perspective, that would easily qualify as a disappointment. The regulars (Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner) as well as one stand-out rookie (Brandon King) had impressive seasons, but the team will continue to solidify all spots on "teams" when 2016 rolls around in order to guard against the occasional devastating mistake.
5. Deflategate punishment
The team, and particularly its owner, were very up-front in this regard. The punishment handed down by the league in response to an alleged football-deflation scheme had them irked. They lost $1 million, a first-rounder in 2016 and a fourth-rounder in 2017. Tom Brady's still fighting his four-game suspension in court. The most disappointing of all those penalties is the one the Patriots will have to cope with in April. For a team that likes to maneuver around the draft board as much as the Patriots do, not having a first-rounder not only saps them of a contributing player starting next season, but it's draft capital they won't get back. Patriots coach Bill Belichick said recently that he doesn't concern himself too much where his team is initially positioned for the draft, but being bumped from the first round for allegedly deflating footballs in last year's AFC title game would seem to be the definition of disappointing.