'Crash landing' for Pats
Foxborough, Mass. - Tom Brady stood helplessly with his hands on his hips after his tipped pass was intercepted. He walked slowly to the sideline, removed his helmet and sat on the bench.
A fourth-quarter comeback chance was gone. The end of his season was less than seven minutes away.
Playoff games leave teams with "either euphoria or crash landing.
"For us," New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Monday, "it was crash landing."
Not even the NFL's best offense or an improving young defense could soften the blow. The 28-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship game Sunday night left the Patriots without a Super Bowl title for the eighth straight year and sent them into an offseason when they could lose two key players.
Wide receiver Wes Welker and cornerback Aqib Talib can become free agents.
Belichick, of course, will be back.
"Yeah. I'll be here. You'll have to deal with me again next year," the coach, known for revealing little to reporters, said in a rare light-hearted moment during his season-ending news conference. "I know that's disappointing for a lot of you. Until I'm told otherwise, I plan on being here."
Belichick, the NFL's longest tenured coach, is looking ahead to his 14th season with the Patriots. He led them to Super Bowl wins in his second, fourth and fifth seasons - but none since.
Only Brady and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork remain from any of those championship teams.
"That whole era is over with. It's gone," defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. "This is a whole new team. This is a different bunch of guys so we all have to experience it and learn for ourselves what that's like."
The Patriots did reach the Super Bowl twice in the five seasons before this one. They lost both to the New York Giants, the latest coming last season. Then they stocked their defense with draft choices - end Chandler Jones, linebacker Dont'a Hightower, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and safety Tavon Wilson.
That was promising but hardly a guarantee of continued success.
"Guys only think about what's going to happen the year that they're in," placekicker Stephen Gostkowski said, surrounded by trash bags and cartons filled with players' belongings. "No matter what's happened in the past it doesn't mean that anything good's going to happen in the future. Each year's different.
"Coming in day one of training camp we had no idea what this team was going to be and you kind of feel your way through throughout the games."
The Patriots started slowly with a 3-3 record. Then they won seven straight before losing to the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers, 41-34 after rallying from a 31-3 deficit. They ended the regular season with two wins.
There were plenty of positives - an offense that led the NFL with 34.8 points and 427.9 yards per game and a defense that was second in the league with 41 takeaways.
Brady had his usual outstanding season, finishing fourth in the NFL with 4,827 yards passing and throwing for 34 touchdowns and eight interceptions. But against the Ravens on Sunday he produced just one touchdown as the Patriots were held scoreless in the second half.
"It's hard to win these games," Brady said Monday during his weekly appearance on WEEI radio. "Unfortunately for us, because we've had a lot of success, nothing means anything unless you win the last game of the year."
Belichick won't wait long to work toward that goal again.
"A season that's very much alive and with great hopes and expectations and energy suddenly crashes and it's over," Belichick said. "That's where we are today. It's stopped. It's over. We're onto next year."
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