The painstaking recovery process from such a loss will take an emotional toll on the coaches and players alike. There will be plenty of empty thoughts and twice as many what-ifs for weeks, if not months and years. But that's the line they toe when immortality is dangling within a minute's grasp.
The legacies for head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have long since been written, though their respective ceilings crumbled a bit Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. But the only way to right that wrong, even if they're each briefly paralyzed in a short-sighted state, will be to get back at it in 2012.
When the Patriots wake up from this funk, they'll find themselves in a tremendous position to do it all over again. Aside from Belichick and Brady, the core of the Patriots' roster is very young, led by safety Patrick Chung (25 years old when the 2012 regular season begins), tight end Rob Gronkowski (23), tight end Aaron Hernandez (22), linebacker Jerod Mayo (26), cornerback Devin McCourty (25), tackle Nate Solder (24), linebacker Brandon Spikes (25) and tackle Sebastian Vollmer (28).
"We've got a young team," Mayo said. "This one stings. We'll remember it for a long time, and this offseason, we'll get back to work real soon and try to get back to this point. It takes a lot of work to get back to this point. It will be a lot of work."
There's also an older generation of leaders who are still in their prime like left guard Logan Mankins (30 years old when the 2012 regular season begins) and defensive lineman Vince Wilfork (30). Of course, add wide receiver Wes Welker (31) to that list, under the strong assumption he'll be back, either with the franchise tag or a long-term contract.
The Patriots have also amassed a strong group of role players who continued to improve this season, such as cornerback Kyle Arrington (26 years old when the 2012 regular season begins), defensive end Brandon Deaderick (25), linebacker Dane Fletcher (25), safety James Ihedigbo (28), defensive tackle Kyle Love (25), linebacker Rob Ninkovich (28), running back Stevan Ridley (23) and special teamer Matthew Slater (27).
Obviously, the Patriots have some decisions to make with players like defensive end Mark Anderson, wide receiver Deion Branch, defensive end Andre Carter, offensive lineman Dan Connolly, running back Kevin Faulk, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Ihedigbo, center Dan Koppen, left tackle Matt Light, wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, Slater, defensive lineman Gerard Warren and Welker.
In one way or another, those players' respective situations — either the free agents or the ones with heavy contract numbers — seem to be easy decisions to make. Whether they're retained or replaced under the logic of an upgrade, the Patriots will be in a good situation as they gear up for 2012.
It's a strange offseason, and the exact schedule is up in the air due to the restructured collective bargaining agreement. But when the Patriots get back to work at some point this spring, they'll have an admirable foundation in which to build from after this season, even though it ended in stinging disappointment.
"We know the taste [of defeat], and we don't like the taste," Chung said. "So we're going to keep working this offseason to try to get back here next year."