A familiar feeling in Foxboro


A familiar feeling in Foxboro

To be honest, I still havent heard or watched any of the post-game coverage from last nights AFC Championship, and I don't plan to anytime soon. So if youre looking for hard-hitting analysis on how and why this years Super Bowl turned into a Harbaugh family reunion, then this probably isnt for you. Same goes for anyone looking to avoid a heavy helping of depression.

Despite ignoring the media wrap-up, Im obviously still familiar with the details of the Patriots latest playoff loss. And as usual, theres an expanding list of what-ifs running through my head:

What if Gronk was healthy? What if Talib stayed healthy? What if they had called a timeout right away? What if Welker made the catch? What if, even in his virtually unconscious state, Stevan Ridley held on to that ball for a split second longer, what if his ass had hit the ground just a split second faster, what if his arm fell just another inch away from his body and the ball never made contact with his leg?

What if Bernard Pollard didnt exist? What if God hadnt made the curious decision that Ray Lewis deserves a second Super Bowl ring more than Tony Gonzalez deserves one?

I could go on, but whats the point? Nothings going to change. And anyway, the what-if game is a slippery slope. It works both ways too. What if JR Redmond didnt get out of bounds? What if Vinatieri didnt needle that kick through the snow? What if Drew Bledsoe had slid? What if he simply stepped out of bounds? What if you were born a Bills fan? What if you were born an ant?

It doesn't matter. So instead of spending the next thousand words or so re-hashing everything that went wrong on Sunday, lets just look at the end result, and the aftermath of another lost season.

Sometime late last night, I was messing around online, searching for a way to start this column, when I came across an old game story that put everything in perspective.

It was from January 23, 2005, just about eight years ago, and the day New England beat Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship.

Here are the first few (very short) paragraphs (and here's the whole thing if you're interested):

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Too much Brady, too much Belichick.The New England Patriots are going back to the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons because they simply overwhelmed Big Ben, stopping him and the Pittsburgh Steelers cold. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were an unbeatable combination again for the Patriots, exposing all of the Steelers' weaknesses to end their 15-game winning streak and win the AFC championship 41-27 on a frigid Sunday night.Brady gave the inexperienced Ben Roethlisberger a lesson in quarterbacking a championship game, throwing two touchdown passes -- one to Deion Branch that gave New England a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. Belichick upstaged can't-win-the-big-one Steelers coach Bill Cowher, improving to 9-1 as a playoffs coach and matching Vince Lombardi for the best postseason record in NFL playoff history.Two weeks later, the Pats beat the Eagles to win their third Lombardi Trophy in four years, and the dynasty was at its peak. It was at THE peak. In turn, all the BradyBelichick slobbering and idolization on display in that old AP story was magnified by infinity. And it was justified, too. They were on top of the world, and showing no signs of coming down.

I can still remember staring at that 10-0 playoff record and wondering if it would ever end. Naturally, that was ridiculous. Of course it would end. At some point, everyone has to lose. But if there was ever an exception to that rule, it was Brady and Belichick.

Who was going to beat them?

I remember that night in Denver. What a fluke. Troy Brown fumbled. Kevin Faulk fumbled. Brady was intercepted at the goal line. Each occurrence was more unlikely than the next.

I remember that night in Indianapolis. My father texting me at halftime to ask which day I'd be able to leave for Miami. I wasn't slightly worried about a jinx. All I could see was another ring. Their fourth in six years. With only Rex Grossman standing in the way.

I remember that night in Glendale. The most confident I've ever been heading into a sporting event. Maybe the most confident day of my life. The game hadn't even started, but the win was already on Brady's resume. Four rings and counting. Undefeated in the Super Bowl. An undefeated regular season. The best to ever play the game, and it wasn't even close.

I remember the most depressing eight minutes of football this city has ever seen. It started with Eli Manning's touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress and ended with Bernard Pollard introducing himself to Brady's knee. Over that short time, everything changed. Everyone was human. It was a reminder that this was sports, and not a fairy tale. It took two years for the franchise to recover.

I remember that night in Foxboro. That awful loss to the Jets. The shock of them falling flat again. Brady and Belichick. This was three straight playoff losses. Three games in which they were heavily favored. Three games in which Brady didn't play all that well. Where Belichick was seemingly out-coached. While 2007 knocked Patriots fans on their ass, the loss to the Jets was a steel chair over the head. Punishment for believing that this time would be different.

I remember that night in Indianapolis last February, and not knowing what to think. What the hell just happened? I thought we'd given up on this dream? But suddenly, here they were: Brady and Belichick, against the same New York Giants, with the perfect chance to atone for everything and miraculously regain that mystique.

Of course, they lost the game in heartbreaking fashion. But worse than the actual loss, was how predictable it was. How familiar it all felt. I remember driving home from Indianapolis, shaking my head and thinking, "Crap. This is who they are now."

I'm doing the same thing this morning.

Probably the best and worst aspect of last nights Patriots loss is that it doesnt hurt quite as much as it used to.

The best because well, who wants to hurt? Given the choice, who would ever want re-live that horrible feeling from the days and weeks after 18-1, or even after last years Super Bowl?

The worst because well, why doesnt it hurt as much?

For one, because we've grown accustomed to the losing. To fantastic regular seasons, and playoff disappointment. Obviously, the disappointment is relative. I think we'd all rather live through this era than switch places with the Browns or Chiefs. I'm just saying that the shock of Brady- and Belichick-led teams coming up short has definitely worn off.

And that sucks.

I'm sorry to put it so eloquently, but it's true. Despite how ridiculous it was to ever believe that the quarterback and coach were as unbeatable as they seemed . . . we really wanted to believe it. In the moment, it was absolutely real.

But now it's absolutely gone.

I don't say that with a lack of perspective. More than anything, I think our original standards were just unfair. No one goes undefeated. Everyone has to lose. Even with everything that's happened over these last eight years, Brady and Belichick will obviously be remembered as one of the greatest quarterbacks and coaches in NFL history.

But you can't help but miss the days when they were THE greatest; when the fairy tale was real. You can't help but look back at all close calls, all the legitimate chances at another title, and get stuck obsessing over how much better it could have and should have been.

But whatever, that's life. It could also be so much worse.

Especially since the run isn't over. Assuming everyone's healthy, the Patriots will be every bit as good next season. With another year of experience under the defense's belt, they could even be better. No one will be surprised if they're back in the AFC Championship, or make it to the Super Bowl. Even amidst the darkness of last night's loss, I can see them winning it all.

But while a fourth Super Bowl ring once felt like a formality basically the worst case scenario for Brady, Belichick and the entire Patriots dynasty right now, No. 4 feels every bit as distant as No. 3, and the possibility of the Pats falling short seems more realistic now than ever.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine