FOXBORO — The whole thing felt more than a little like the final day of school: Lockers were being cleaned out, guys were saying goodbye and making plans to meet up soon. All that was missing was someone passing around a yearbook to sign.
Less than 12 hours after a sudden and shocking playoff loss to the Jets ended their year, the Patriots were left trying to explain how the good feeling from a 14-2 campaign, the best regular-season record in football and a division title could turn so sour so quickly.
“You always think your season’s going to continue,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick on Monday morning. “There were certainly a lot of good things that happened for us this season, but that definitely gets overshadowed by the final results.
“[We had] a better record than any other team. It was good, but it’s not the final measuring stick,” he added. “We’ve all got a lot of disappointment today in the final results.”
After a midday team meeting where, according to players, Belichick addressed a number of topics, including the looming labor uncertainty, trash bags were hauled out and players packed up. The mood was predictably subdued, as players gathered their things, made plans to catch up in the offseason and talked quietly about the opportunities that slipped away in the wake of the Patriots’ third straight playoff defeat.
“You never get over losses. I’ve never gotten over one loss I’ve had in my career. They always stick with me,” quarterback Tom Brady told WEEI. “Some teams play and they only make the playoffs and that’s a hell of a year. That’s not what the Patriots are all about. I don’t think that’s the standard that guys like Tedy [Bruschi] and Willie [McGinest] and Ty [Law] set for us. Our expectations every year are to win the Super Bowl. When you don’t do that, there’s disappointment that lingers for a long time. Fortunately during the regular season, you always have a game the following week. In the postseason, you don’t.”
“We obviously are all in shock. We weren’t expecting this to happen. It was one of those things where all you can do is just reflect and hope you do better going forward,” said linebacker Tully Banta-Cain. “We had gained some momentum from the regular season going into the playoffs, and it kind of felt like we had some good steam behind that momentum. And for it to come to a screeching halt, no one was expecting that.”
“I think everybody has different thought processes on how the season was going and how it ended,” said wide receiver Deion Branch. “But I think it all comes down to the fact that it ended the way we didn’t want it to end. I think that’s the biggest thing. We can all put our own spin on it, but it just didn’t end the way we wanted it to end.”
The Patriots won eight straight over the second half of the season to finish with the best regular-season record in the league. They had the NFL’s highest-scoring offense in the regular-season with an average of 32.4 points per game, and led the NFL in takeaways, setting a franchise record with plus-28. And they will be sending eight players to the Pro Bowl.
But on Sunday, they were unable to generate any kind of rhythm on offense — two drives that got them inside the New York 30-yard line in the first quarter resulted in only three points, setting the tone for the rest of the night. The defense was unable to get any sort of pressure on Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, who finished with three touchdown passes. And a key special teams’ gaffe — Patrick Chung couldn’t handle a direct snap on a fake punt — led to a turnover on downs deep in New England territory, one the Jets turned into a key touchdown.
In the end, it all added up to a gruesome scenario for the Patriots, as the Jets, who had been boasting all week about how this game was going to be different than the 45-3 pasting New England had laid on them in December, came into Gillette and handled their business, dealing the Patriots a 28-21 defeat and moving on to the AFC Championship Game against the Steelers.
For New England, the fact that the Jets will move on while they will watch the rest of the playoffs from home is a bitter pill to swallow for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that over the course of the regular season, the Patriots defeated all four of the teams left in the playoffs: While they lost two of three to the Jets, they did defeat the Bears, Packers, Steelers and Jets (in December) by an average of 22 points. (New England split their regular-season series with New York, losing 28-14 then winning 45-3, while beating Pittsburgh, 39-26, Green Bay, 31-27, and Chicago, 36-7.)
“Look at the fact that all the teams that are still playing, we beat all [them],” Branch said ruefully. “You know what I’m saying?”
“We beat every team that’s (still) in the playoffs,” Banta-Cain said. “And, obviously, it’s a big disappointment because we know what we’re capable of.”
But while regular-season victories over quality opponents are nice, they don’t match postseason wins.
“I think we all understand what the playoffs are: it’s a compilation of the best teams playing each other and the highest level of competition,” Belichick said. “I think that’s really where you measure all the teams and see what you can do against those top levels of competition. There’re obviously some things that we’re going to have to do better relative to that. [We] found that out last year, too. We’ll try to address those.”
Going forward, the focus for the Patriots over the next few days will be on logistics. While players will participate in end-of-year physicals, the coaches and the rest of the staff will focus on wrapping up some of what Belichick called “end of the year things.” Belichick and the New England staff will head to Honolulu to coach the AFC squad in the Pro Bowl. (“It’s definitely not where you want to be, [but] we’ll go out there and do it,” Belichick said.) Then? Barring a work stoppage, it’s on to 2011.
For their part, Branch and Brady sounded optimistic about the future.
“There’s still a little disappointment floating around, but we still have a lot of stuff to look forward to,” Branch said. “I think the bigger picture we all can look at is the season didn’t end the way we wanted it to end, but once we look at it, we still have a lot of stuff to hang our hat on. We had a great year. Finished 14-2. Best team in the league in the regular season, but not in the postseason. We see the things we have to tighten up on. We know what we have to tighten up on.”
“I’m not going anywhere any time soon,” Brady said. “Coach Belichick, what he allows us to do as a team and the coaching that he gives us, is the best. There’s no one better. When you have the best coach and the best owner, you’re set up to be successful year after year playing for the Patriots. As long as we have a group of guys that are tough and resilient and work hard, that love the game of football like the guys we have this year, we’re always going to win games.”