NEW YORK – There in the lonely, last minutes of the Super Bowl, New England was desperate for a big play. A play on offense, a play on defense. Anything. Anywhere. One more fourth-quarter first down, one more stop, one moment when someone stepped up and did something spectacular, and they could have beaten the New York Giants.
It never came. New York won. New England lost. And another season in the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick championship window had slipped away.
For years the Patriots had stockpiled draft picks, moving back to bulk up on future second- and third-round selections. They were cautious and smart. It landed them nine consecutive seasons with double-digit victories.
It also left them lacking truly elite talent at critical positions.
So, the question remained, what if they had moved up instead, took a run at a playmaker, a difference maker? What if a year ago they hadn't traded out of the first round with their second first-day pick? Would one more top-flight talent have changed the Super Bowl?
Thursday, they finally changed directions.
Belichick got aggressive late in the first round, trading a third-round pick to the Cincinnati Bengals to move up from No. 27 to 21 and pick Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones.
Then, minutes later, they handed over a fourth-rounder to Denver to move up from 31 to 25 and secure Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower.
That's a potentially game-breaking pass rusher, a position of intense need. And that's a linebacker known for his versatile, big-play ability in anchoring Alabama's national championship team.
"This isn't college football," Hightower said. "You're not recruiting to win two years from now. You're trying to win now.
"For New England to show such aggression to move up and get two great defensive players and help seal the deal on that defense [is great]. Because, you know the offense is stacked."
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Belichick was his typical self after the picks. He obviously thinks highly of both players, but there was the typical downplaying of expectations. He noted they'd have to compete with "a lot of good guys." Yeah, who knows if they'll even play.
"I hope we've improved," Belichick said. "We'll see. We haven't put them in a Patriots uniform yet. We'll see how they develop. I think both guys have been good in their system. They're smart. They're good guys. I hope they'll be productive for us."
If nothing else this was the kind of bold move everyone has been waiting for out of Foxborough. The Patriots tried to bolster the receiving corps with free agency and now used the draft to help strengthen the front seven.
Brady will be 35 by the start of the season, and while he's been as brilliant as ever, careers tend to close quicker than anyone expects. Belichick is 60, and while he too is as sharp as ever, no one knows how long he wants to coach.
This is a young man's league. Both coach and quarterback know it.
New England has remained the league's most consistent, well-oiled machine. Players come, players go, and they crank out 12, 13 victories. Belichick likes to celebrate "hat games," when something, such as an AFC East, is won and everyone gets a hat or a T-shirt.
He's in this to win Super Bowls, though.
Consistently trading down is the strategy of a team trying to build or maintain the status quo, and it's a sensible plan, but sometimes a team has to make a move to get a guy who can make that sack, that tackle, that interception in the Super Bowl.
Hightower had 85 tackles a year ago, 11 for loss, four sacks and a pick, and played all over the field for the Crimson Tide.
"He's very aggressive," said Alabama teammate Dre Kirkpatrick, who was picked by Cincinnati. "He's one of those guys you need to turn down because he's so into the game."
"He barely came off the field," Belichick said.
Jones is a fast, athletic 6-foot-5 defensive end who had 4.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for a loss himself at Syracuse. He's expected to be disruptive. One older brother, Arthur, plays for the Baltimore Ravens and another older brother, Jon, is an MMA champion fighter.
"Coach Belichick picked me for a reason," Jones told reporters.
Whether the newcomers deliver remains to be seen. That New England is building for right now isn't. These were moves built out of strength, built out of an urgency to capitalize on a team that couldn't be closer to winning it all for the fourth time in this era.
"Tom Brady is a great leader," Hightower said. "They've got some great players on defense, Vince Wilfork. I'm excited.
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"It means a lot to me to come up and grab me and Chandler."
It means a lot to the NFL. Belichick went all out Thursday. New England is focused on one thing and one thing only: Super Bowl or bust.
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