FOXBOROUGH — Is this the end?
That's the question on everyone's mind after Saturday's dispiriting 20-13 AFC Wild Card playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans. After two decades of dominance and an epic run of four Super Bowl appearances and three titles in five years, is this how the Patriots Dynasty finally crumbles?
It sure felt that way on Saturday night. After years of watching Tom Brady and Bill Belichick outplay and outsmart opposing teams, the Patriots finally looked mortal. When given an opportunity to pull off a game-winning fourth quarter drive, the Patriots punted. When the defense had a chance to get off the field and give Brady one last real chance, it couldn't. When Brady finally did get one last chance for a miracle, his pass was intercepted for a touchdown — by former Patriot cornerback Logan Ryan of all people.
Put simply, the magic wasn't there. And what was left just wasn't good enough to get the job done.
That much is clear. What's not clear is what happens next.
Tom Brady is 42 years old, and on March 18 he will become a free agent for the first time in his career. While still capable of winning games, Brady's play noticeably declined this fall, and at 43 he's entering the final rounds of a battle that Father Time will eventually win.
Has Brady played his last game with the Patriots? He wouldn't say, and while he did say that it's "pretty unlikely" he'll retire, it's a possibility that can't be ruled out.
But whether or not Brady returns, big changes are clearly coming to 1 Patriot Place.
Tight end Ben Watson will almost certainly retire. Defensive backs Devin and Jason McCourty have hinted that they might consider walking away too, and special teams captain Matthew Slater will decide on his future as well.
They aren't the only ones.
All-Pro left guard Joe Thuney will be a free agent and in all likelihood has a huge payday coming his way. Center Ted Karras, linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts, wide receiver Phillip Dorsett, defensive tackle Danny Shelton and special teamer Nate Ebner will all be entering free agency as well, and it's a virtual certainty that at least some of those players will move on.
"You have a core group of guys that are now 30-plus, that always has question marks," Devin McCourty said. "Are we going to be as good? Are we going to retire? All of those questions continuously come up and I think it's important to just take some time away, be with our families and figure out the situation going forward, just like I know all the Patriots will do the same thing."
Change doesn't necessarily have to be bad though. This year's team was clearly lacking on offense across the board, and an infusion of new talent might be just what the doctor ordered. With a good draft, some smart free agent signings and improvement from the returning players, there's no reason why Tom Brady couldn't come back and get the Patriots back into championship contention one more time.
But uncomfortable as it is to imagine, it's just as likely that Saturday really was the end of an era, and that things are about to get a lot worse before they get better.
Only time will tell what comes next, but this much is sure — the future of the New England Patriots is as uncertain as it's been in more than 20 years.
Mac Cerullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.