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New England Patriots' loss to Chiefs a microcosm of a lost season

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In the hotel adjacent to Gillette Stadium, thousands of dollars worth of memorabilia is put up for sale and auction on the morning before a game. On Sunday, the tables were set up early, as the sun was just rising, because the New England Patriots were playing the Kansas City Chiefs, somewhat incredibly, at 1 p.m.

The game had been flexed from Monday night and that bit of scheduling reflected a reality about the Patriots that was illustrated most starkly in the assortment of keepsakes available for purchase in the lobby: The era of star players and must-see games is well in the past for the Patriots. Amid the signed photos and jerseys of greats like Brady, Bledsoe, Gronkowski, Bruschi, Edelman, Law, Malloy, White and Butler was one small photo of Bailey Zappe and a signed jersey of Matthew Judon. For the truly flush and melancholy, there were framed pictures of Brady and Bill Belichick and the six enormous Super Bowl rings they won together

As those Super Bowl memories have receded, and the losses this season mounted -- on Sunday, the old dynasty lost to the nascent one, 27-17 -- they have been replaced by an uncomfortable and pointed question: What now? With three games remaining in the season and the Patriots already eliminated from the playoffs, Belichick's future -- and the future of nearly every facet of the football operation -- is now the topic that consumes New England and the NFL the way playoff seeding used to.

The only correct answer to the question is the one that is so difficult for so many to admit. Nobody knows for sure what is going to happen and if Belichick will return. The circle of people who might know is limited to owner Robert Kraft, his son Jonathan, Belichick and their closest confidantes, and this is a famously discreet group.

Further complicating the question is that Belichick has possessed complete control over the team, in both coaching and personnel, since he has been in New England. He is the architect of the franchise, and that worked spectacularly when Brady was the most important piece of the scaffolding and shared the field with playmakers on both sides of the ball. With Brady gone, and Mac Jones dramatically regressing from his rookie promise, the holes in the roster have been apparent and the scaffolding has collapsed.

The lack of explosive offensive weapons has been obvious for several years, and if there is anything certain about the months ahead, it is that the roster must undergo a considerable rebuild, starting at quarterback and extending to nearly every facet of the offense. That goes to another question: Who makes those decisions? Do the Krafts trust Belichick, who signed a contract extension this offseason, to draft or sign another quarterback? Do they believe fresh eyes are needed in the personnel department to overhaul the roster? This spring, the Patriots used a fourth-round pick on kicker Chad Ryland. And on Sunday, he missed a 41-yard field goal, part of a disastrous rookie season. Would Belichick ever cede personnel control if he were to remain the head coach? And if that is untenable for him, would he coach elsewhere in 2024, and who would coach the Patriots? All of it, every possible scenario, is merely conjecture for now.

Belichick would likely have options, assuming he would want to continue coaching if the Patriots do not want him back. He has 332 regular-season and postseason victories combined, 15 short of the record held by Don Shula. At age 71, there is no indication that Belichick wants to stop, even if it means he has to start over elsewhere. On Sunday, he faced questions about why he had the Patriots punt on fourth-and-3 early in the fourth quarter, and why J.C. Jackson was active but did not play. Players in a very quiet locker room wondered why there was not more tempo with the offense late in the fourth quarter. Among the things the Krafts, or other owners searching for a coach, will have to balance: Do Belichick's philosophies about game and player management still work?

The Patriots will almost certainly have a top-five draft pick in 2024, and they are expected to also be near the top of the league in available salary cap space. There are a few players on the roster -- safety Kyle Dugger and tight end Hunter Henry among them -- whose contracts expire after this season who might want to be retained. Whoever is making the decisions will have the means to dramatically recast the roster this offseason.

The bottom line, then, is who the Krafts would trust more with their franchise than they do Belichick.

Across the field, the Chiefs sputtered to a win Sunday, with their offense slowed by the attrition of playmakers and championship hopes looking as vulnerable as they have at any time in the Mahomes era. They are a good reminder of just how difficult it is to construct and sustain dynasties, and how extraordinary those two decades in New England were.

That won't make any of the decisions to come for the Patriots any easier. In fact, that makes them harder. They know better than anyone in the current NFL what it feels like to be a colossus, how Gillette Stadium used to vibrate when it was full and at a roar, not pockmarked with clusters of visiting fans, and empty seats and the boredom of the locals. They face the same difficult choices that others have when a legendary coach hits a rough patch. In Dallas, the painful transition from Tom Landry set the stage for Super Bowls. In Miami, they are still waiting for their first post-Shula Super Bowl.

Belichick is in the odd position of receiving tributes while he's still coaching, as if his fate is a foregone conclusion, even though it clearly is not. The Chiefs seemed to go out of their way to show deference. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid had his team take a knee on the goal line rather than score, to give the Patriots the ball back with 35 seconds remaining. Reid, who is close to Belichick, called him "the best to ever do it," and said it was the right thing to do to not run up the score. Patrick Mahomes said he is always focused when he faces Belichick.

Belichick, of course, said little after the game -- he did not even offer his customary summation that they didn't coach or play well enough before calling for questions -- but the outcome insured there would be no feel-good end to this lost season. The Patriots have not quit on Belichick. They still play hard. They are simply not good enough. If there is an epitaph to be written for Belichick's run in New England, you could do a lot worse than the one offered by Travis Kelce, who said the toughest job in the NFL is going up against Belichick. He was asked his feelings about this potentially being the last time he faced him in New England. He paused for several seconds.

"Um. The fact you just said that, it's wild to even think about," Kelce said. "I got a feeling that guy's still got some football left in him."

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