The end of a season, but not an era

The end of a season, but not an era
January 20, 2014, 3:00 pm
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(AP Photo)

This opening paragraph was supposed to be special. It was supposed to be emotional, dramatic, sprinkled with a deep sense of history and the scent of rich mahogany. Today, on the heels of all the hype leading up to Sunday’s AFC Championship Game -- followed by, you know, the actual game -- everything was supposed to be different. New England was supposed to be swinging wildly from the ledge on one of two ends of the sports fan spectrum:

On top of the world, heading back to the Super Bowl with middle fingers blazing and the rest of the country gladly returning serve, or

Down for the count, buried in a dark, lonely (and unfortunately familiar) pit of Patriots depression and regret.

But instead, here we are. It’s Monday. The AFC Championship Game has come and gone. Another chapter in the Book of Brady is complete and the remaining pages are collectively thinner than Gisele after a juice cleanse. And I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. But that presumed sense of drama, emotion and mahogany never surfaced. The wild extreme doesn’t exist.

There obviously aren’t a lot of positive strands in old duder’s head, because there was nothing positive to take from the Patriots’ loss. From start to finish, it was hard to watch. For the first time in more than six months, there was a reason to be jealous of Aaron Hernandez.

Over the course of 60 minutes, there were only a few fleeting moments in which the AFC Championship Game felt like an actual game instead of a Denver coronation, and the dream of another Patriots’ Super Bowl resembled anything more than just a dream. In the second half, there were maybe two occasions — 4th-and-3 in the third quarter; the two-point conversion in the fourth — when New England broke the huddle, adrenaline kicked in and there was the slightest inclination that what happened next might have a hand in altering an increasingly inevitable outcome.

The Pats failed on both those tries, but those failures aren’t the only reason they lost. They lost because (WARNING: #HotTake) they simply didn’t play well enough to win. They never established the run. They didn’t protect Tom Brady when it mattered most. And even when they did, Brady couldn’t take advantage. He overthrew Julian Edelman on a would-be touchdown in the first quarter. He missed a streaking Austin Collie at the end of the first half. In the years since Randy Moss left town, Brady’s inconsistency with the deep ball has emerged as his greatest weakness, and on Sunday he did nothing to change that narrative.

On the other side of the ball, the defense wasn’t perfect. They never got to Peyton Manning, or even came close. And considering that . . . 

a) He’s Peyton Manning 

b) He’s blessed with four Pro Bowl-caliber targets

c) The Patriots were short Aqib Talib, the one player who we spent the last three months swearing that they couldn’t do without.

. . . it’s no surprise the quarterback had himself a day. He was Peyton Manning in his most terrifying form: calm, collected, undisturbed and in total control. He finished 33-for-42 for 400 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Still, the defense held the Broncos to 26 points — their third-lowest total of the season. They did enough. If someone told you before the game that Denver would only score 26 points, you’d have felt pretty good about New England’s chances. But while no one feels good about the way the game ultimately unfolded, the aftermath is somewhat surprising.

Again, maybe it’s just me, but that familiar -- and anticipated -- darkness doesn’t exist. For whatever reason, the Pats have now suffered eight playoff losses since their last Super Bowl victory, and by comparison, yesterday’s is relatively easy to swallow.

It wasn’t supposed to be like that.

Of course, just because it’s easier doesn’t make it easy. Swallowing this one still doesn’t taste much better than a tall glass of diarrhea. But in retrospect, it doesn’t burn any deeper than 2006 in Denver — the first playoff blemish on Brady’s resume and our introduction to his football mortality.

It’s certainly not worse than 2007 in Indianapolis — heading into halftime up 21-6, with only two quarters and Rex Grossman standing in the way of title. It’s not worse than the Super Bowl in Arizona, because nothing’s worse than that. It’s not worse than two embarrassing home losses to the Ravens and Jets, or another squandered Super Bowl in Indy, or dropping last year’s AFC Championship despite being favored by 8 1/2 points at home against Baltimore.

The biggest difference between then and now is expectations. Looking back on those previous seven losses, with the possible exception of the first one, there’s still a sense that the Pats should have or could have won. There are plays and decisions that haunt the organization to this day. There’s still so much anger and regret. But as time goes on, and we reflect on this latest Patriots loss, I’m not sure that will be the case. Sure, maybe we’ll always wonder how things would have been different had Brady connected with Edelman, or Wes Welker hadn’t taken out Talib. But eventually, those feelings will pale in comparison to the underlying reality that the Patriots lost to a better team.

Instead, we should remember the great moments along the road New England traveled to even get that far. We should bask in the grit and resilience this group exemplified at nearly every turn.

Of course, because this team is the New England Patriots, that will never happen. As long Brady and Belichick are at the helm, the franchise will always be victimized by their own precedent.  But in the big picture, the truth is that these Patriots are undeserving of the criticism that’s been rightfully bestowed on more recent versions. After all the injuries and one major arrest, killing these guys for what happened on Sunday is like hating on a three-legged horse for not winning the Kentucky Derby.

Of course, let’s not get carried away. That horse was still good enough to qualify for the race. It was paced by a trainer and a jockey who had defied the odds so many times before. That horse still had a chance. Hell, I picked them to win. The crown was within reach. And ultimately, the horse fell flat on its face, and has no one to blame but itself. Still, it’s a three-legged horse! It shouldn’t be punished for not exceeding expectations beyond all the expectations it already had. It should put out to stud and celebrated for what it accomplished. Not sent off to the glue factory with all the other failures.

That should be the true legacy of this team. It should be okay that they didn’t win it all. More than any other year since Brady’s injury, it is okay. And here’s one more reason why.

There will be another chance. It isn’t over. If there’s anything we’ve learned from previous seven playoff losses, and the annual declaration of the END OF AN ERA, it’s that as long as Brady and Belichick are around, the dream is still alive.

Belichick just completed one of the most impressive coaching jobs of his career. He might be more ornery than ever, but he clearly hasn’t lost it. There are still very few, if any, coaches you’d rather have on your side. And then there’s Brady. Yeah, he wasn’t great yesterday, and has struggled some in recent years. But you don’t think he’s still good enough to win a Super Bowl?

Okay, maybe not with the talent he was surrounded by this year, but if you know that, something tells me that Belichick knows that. Something tells me that he feels a level of urgency that’s deeper and more pressing than anything we can understand. He knows that Brady needs help. The same way he knew in 2007. You really think he’ll just leave his QB hanging? You think he’ll just leave himself hanging? You don’t think he wants to win as badly as anyone? That team is his entire life. His legacy. And Belichick cares about that more than he’ll ever let on.

Yes, there are big decisions to be made. Edelman, Talib and LeGarrette Blount are the biggest free agents. No doubt the Patriots understand each one’s worth and how essential they were in making this season as successful as it was. But beyond that, the core is there . . . 

Brady, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, eventually Rob Gronkowski and the foundation of the offensive line.

Vince Wilfork (although a decision looms on his contract), Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, Chandler Jones, Devin McCourty, Alfonzo Dennard, Logan Ryan, Jamie Collins and an assortment of other role players who earned valuable time in the face of those injuries.

That’s not a perfect roster, but it’s also incomplete. It’s a more than sufficient foundation. The Patriots had the second-youngest team in the NFL this year. It’s fair to assume that they’ll get better. It’s fair to assume that — whether it’s in free agency or the draft — they’ll get some help. It’s fair to assume that the rest of the AFC East will still be a mess, because look —

The Jets are still rolling with the Rex Ryan, and Geno Smith, and nothing that remotely resembles an NFL offense. The Bills are getting better, but it’s not their time yet. The Dolphins had tumultuous season that’s already carried over into the offseason, amid reports that the players don’t respect their coaches. The whole division is in limbo; meanwhile, the Pats are still sitting comfortably on top. And short of an injury to Brady, will still end up there. And in turn, right back in the playoffs. Right back where they always are. A few wins from another shot at a Super Bowl title, and a realistic chance to finally break through.

Of course, there’s shelf life on these dreams. And there’s no doubt that the expiration date is in sight. The Book of Brady will eventually come to an end, and that end is closer now than it’s ever been. You’ll be able to say the same thing tomorrow and the next day and every day until he retires. But it’s not over yet. There are stories left to be told.

And while nothing is guaranteed, there’s no reason to abandon hope that there still can be a happy ending.

Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine