ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Sunday’s gut-punch loss to the Buffalo Bills ended the New England Patriots’ 2022 season.
Whether it also ended the careers of their two longtime captains remains to be seen.
Special teams ace Matthew Slater and safety Devin McCourty both declined after New England’s 35-23 loss at Highmark Stadium to say whether they plan to retire this offseason.
“I’m not sure, and I don’t think it’s fair to the guys in that locker room to just talk about my personal situation,” a visibly emotional Slater said at the postgame podium.
“I’ve never been in this position like that,” McCourty added a short while later. “I think just figuring out what makes me happy, what God has planned in my life going forward. Obviously, I still enjoy playing the game of football, but you can’t do it forever. I think my wife, my kids, just deciding on what’s best overall for not just me, but the whole family unit and just figuring out what it’s going to be.
“I wish I could give you a better answer right now, but I don’t know. I’m going to enjoy this plane ride back with the guys and just cherish each moment now knowing what’s ahead.”
Both players acknowledged last week that the Patriots’ Week 17 win over Miami might have been their final game at Gillette Stadium, and both could be seen crying on the field after Sunday’s season-ending defeat.
Center and fellow co-captain David Andrews did the same we he was asked about Slater and McCourty.
Slater and McCourty both are career-long Patriots with three Super Bowl rings apiece. The former arrived in 2008, part of the same draft class that produced current New England linebackers coach Jerod Mayo. The latter came aboard in 2010. Both became team captains in 2011 and held those roles for the next 12 seasons. They’re two of the few remaining threads that connect this current Patriots team to the franchise’s Tom Brady-era peak.
When Slater was asked about McCourty’s impact on his life, he teared up.
“He’s going to make fun of me later for being up here crying and stuff,” the 37-year-old said. “No one I’ve ever played has impacted my life more. Simple as that.”
McCourty echoed that, saying Slater has been “phenomenal” to him and that they’re “going to have to always keep in touch and FaceTime and stuff” — a quote that suggested one or both will not be playing next season.
“He’s 37, I’m 35,” McCourty said. “You can’t play this game forever. There’s a big unknown with all of that, even what we decide or even what other people decide if you are able to play somewhere and figuring that out. But I just always think of, being in these moments, you don’t want to walk away and not be able to speak about what people have meant to you in your life. And Matt’s just been phenomenal for me.”
McCourty had one of his most productive games of the season Sunday, registering an interception, a forced fumble and an end-zone pass breakup in the loss. Slater, meanwhile, came away dejected after the Patriots allowed two kick-return touchdowns in a game they lost by 12.
Slater said he was “shellshocked” by New England’s performance on special teams, which capped a dismal season for that unit.
“I’ve been playing this game a long time and never been a part of anything like that,” he said. “It’s obviously very disappointing, and as a captain of that unit, I feel like we cost the team the game. So it was very difficult.”
McCourty called the loss “bone-crushing.”
Though Sunday’s result eliminated the Patriots from playoff contention for the second time in three years, both players expressed confidence in the team’s future.
“I know we’re all disappointed with the way that it’s ended,” Slater said, “but I feel like we built a lot of character this year. There’s a great young core of players in that locker room that are going to be good for this franchise for a long time, and I certainly hope that we — I’ll always say ‘we’ — will build off that and that our future holds better things in store.
“And I believe that it does. As frustrating as it is right now, I think the future’s bright.”
Head coach Bill Belichick, who’s spoken glowingly about Slater and McCourty in recent weeks, declined to say much about either after Sunday’s game.
“If (this was their last game), we’ll talk about it later,” Belichick said. “I don’t know if that’s the case. I’m not going to preempt anything. That’s their decision, not mine. So whatever it is, we’ll deal with it later.”