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While these Patriots remain focused on this season, changes are inevitable moving forward

Center David Andrews (right) paused for a moment with running back Damien Harris before heading into the Patriots' locker room.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Still in his cleats and uniform, Patriots defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. made his way around the visiting locker room at Highmark Stadium, stopping to shake the hands of each of his teammates.

As some players prepared to hit the showers and others began to pack up their belongings, Wise sidestepped his way through the tight quarters, dodging staffers gathering strewn laundry and equipment bags scattered on the floor. Wise, a first-time captain, made a concerted effort to share a brief moment with each teammate, from long snapper Tucker Addington, signed to the 53-man roster two weeks ago, to quarterback Mac Jones.


His words to each player were different, but the crux of the message was the same.

“You will never have the same team twice,” Wise said. “When it comes to this team, it was an honor to play with these guys, it was an honor to work with them. They gave it everything they had every single day. I wished everyone the best, wished everybody much prosperity, success, and joy wherever they go — whether it’s here or somewhere else.”

The 2022 Patriots played their final game Sunday, a 35-23 loss to the Buffalo Bills.

The Patriots controlled their postseason destiny at kickoff. Win and they’re in. Lose and they still had an outside chance of advancing if Miami and Pittsburgh both also lost. But the results didn’t break in New England’s favor. And, for the second time in three years, the Patriots missed the playoffs and finished with a losing record.

After weeks of struggling to play complementary football, with the sputtering passing attack often letting down the stellar defense, New England’s offense strung together some of its best football of the season Sunday. Jones orchestrated three impressive touchdown drives, each of at least eight plays and 70 yards.


But the Patriots still couldn’t play a complete game in all three phases. The special teams unit allowed two touchdowns on kickoff returns. After Nyheim Hines’s second TD return, Nick Folk attempted a squib kick, but the ball went out of bounds along the sideline, giving the Bills possession at the 40-yard line.

The untimely gaffes this season were aplenty.

With overtime looming in Week 15 against Las Vegas, running back Rhamondre Stevenson and wide receiver Jakobi Meyers teamed up for an ill-advised, improvised lateral that led to a walkoff touchdown for the Raiders. With a chance to beat the Bengals in Week 16, Stevenson fumbled at Cincinnati’s 8-yard line with a minute to go.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why the Patriots lately can’t seem to get out of their own way, why they continue to make mistakes that seem so uncharacteristic. Coach Bill Belichick has stayed intentionally vague, saying time and time again that the team needs to improve in all facets.

With a critical offseason ahead, he declined to look forward to what’s to come.

“We’ll deal with this game,” said Belichick. “We’ll deal with all that later.”

Changes are certainly looming, with some more welcome than others.

Captains Matthew Slater and Devin McCourty, the two longest-tenured Patriots, may have played their last games. While neither would confirm their plans for the future, both have made it clear that retirement is on the table.

The Patriots have 19 pending free agents, including receivers Meyers and Nelson Agholor, cornerback Jonathan Jones, offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn, safeties Myles Bryant and Jabrill Peppers, linebackers Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson, long snapper Joe Cardona, and running back Damien Harris.


Wide receiver Jakobi Meyers is among 19 Patriots slated to be free agents.Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

The Patriots are expected to have $49.8 million in salary cap space in 2023, which would be the fourth-highest total in the league, behind only Chicago, Atlanta, and the New York Giants.

Meyers, who will be one of the top pass catchers on the market, has expressed interest in returning. Harris, fighting back tears at his locker Sunday, said the same.

“If they want to have me, I’d love to be back,” Harris said. “But at the end of the day, I know this is a business. I know that this organization is going to do what they feel is best for them. At the end of the day, I have to do what I feel is best for me. We’ll see what happens.”

Linebackers coach Jerod Mayo will likely be a highly coveted candidate in the upcoming head coaching searches. Mayo, who has interviewed for openings in the past, reaffirmed his interest in becoming a head coach and could potentially consider defensive coordinator jobs as well.

Linebackers coach Jerod Mayo will be highly sought after in the offseason.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The Patriots also need to address their own coordinator situation, deciding whether to hire someone dedicated to the offensive side of the ball after the tandem of Matt Patricia and Joe Judge did not pan out as Belichick had hoped.

Free agency doesn’t open until March, but news involving the coaching staff could come as soon as this month. Until then, Wise and Harris stressed the importance of sharing final moments with this year’s group.


“I’m not really worried about that right now,” Harris said. “I’m just trying to enjoy this last opportunity to be with my teammates this year. Whatever happens next year, happens next year.”

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Nicole Yang can be reached at nicole.yang@globe.com.Follow her @nicolecyang.