Monday, January 21, 2013

End of a Patriots aura

To their credit, we are still surprised when they crash. The Patriots haven’t won a Super Bowl since Robert Griffin III was 14 years old, but somehow we think this year will be different. This year they will be tougher, more clutch, less haunted and less hated. This year the journey will end with confetti flying and music blaring and everyone in awe of the Patriots, just like in the old days.

It just doesn’t happen. It hasn’t happened in a long time. The Patriots have been crashing and burning in the postseason for eight years, and somehow we still expect them to land like Felix Baumgartner, feet first and smiling, kings of the mountain once again.

There is still an aura about them that clouds our better judgment. They are like Tiger Woods teeing off at Augusta. He could be hitting it sideways and still we think, this is it, the elusive next major. This is the one. He’s Tiger. He is special, so we wait for his return to glory, like a dog waiting by the grave for his dead owner to return.

The last time the Patriots won it all, Tom Brady was 27. Since they beat Philadelphia on Feb. 6, 2005, the Patriots have lost in the wild card round once, the divisional round twice, the conference championship once and the Super Bowl twice. And in their last five postseason losses the Patriots went in as favorites to win all of them. That is a trend, and not a good one.

The team that once shocked the world with its upset of the Greatest Show On Turf now surprises us with new and innovative ways to fail. The team that once showed more guts than any other now punts from inside the opponent’s 40-yard line. The team that once had more attitude than anyone goes meekly into another offseason. Oh, that’s not entirely true: Wes Welker’s wife had some choice words for preening egomaniac Ray Lewis. Good for her. At least someone spit back.

In the pregame breakdowns, the Patriots held the edge over Baltimore in most categories, but the Ravens were superior where it mattered. They were tougher, meaner, nastier, more vicious. They showed, to use Lance Armstrong’s term, a ruthless desire to win. The NFL is always a brutal and violent game, but it gets even more physical in the playoffs. Baltimore enforcer Bernard Pollard changed the game Sunday when he gave up his body and destroyed Stevan Ridley, knocking out the ball and the Patriots’ best running back with one vicious assault.

The Patriots don’t have a player like Pollard and haven’t had one since Rodney Harrison retired. They could use one, maybe two or three. They need to understand that the postseason is when the games end and the street fights begin. No coincidence that the two best street fighters — Baltimore and San Francisco — are still standing. Everyone else is either home or in the hospital.

The Patriots have, sadly, become the kind of finesse team they used to push around. The Rams in the Super Bowl, Peyton Manning’s Colts in 2003-04 — the Patriots spit on all their gaudy regular-season numbers and punched them in the throat when they tried to get off the line of scrimmage. The NFL changed the rules, but the playoffs are different. The Ravens roughed up the Patriots all night, but were flagged for just five penalties.

This year the Patriots rolled up an NFL-best 557 points, almost 35 a game, and then put 41 on the velvety-soft Houston Texans. They looked like a slick new video game for most of the season and then Pollard smashed his head through the screen, and everything changed. The Patriots got intimidated. They played not to lose. Welker has taken a lot of grief for his drop on third-and-8 at the Ravens 34-yard line (soon after Pollard laid him out) early in the third quarter, but at least he was trying. More than you can say for Bill Belichick on the next play.

Stunningly, after Welker’s drop, the Pats coach sent out Zoltan Mesko to punt. From the 34. After a 21-yard punt, the Ravens marched 87 yards to score a touchdown and take a 14-13 lead. It turned out to be the game winner. For the first time in three years, the Patriots did not score in the second half.

This was the same coach who famously went for it on fourth-and-2 at his own 28 in Indianapolis once upon a time. This was the same guy who gambled on fourth-and-13 against the Giants in the Super Bowl. But this was the third time in this AFC Championship Game that Belichick punted inside Baltimore territory.

Times have changed, and maybe it’s time we realized the Patriots have changed. It’s been eight years since a season ended with a Lombardi Trophy. Another crash landing Sunday night. Another year gone from Brady’s career. It is still a surprise to see them go so quietly, so meekly, but it probably shouldn’t be. Not anymore. The Brady-Belichick era may not be over yet. The aura is.



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