Loyal Patriots' fans feel left out in the cold
First, last year's season for the ages ended in agony, a quest for perfection dashed by a rival quarterback's mad scramble and a little-known receiver's miracle catch. Next, minutes into a promising new season, superstar quarterback Tom Brady crumbled to the ground in anguish, and legions of Patriots fans did the same.
Somehow, the squad soldiered on, and loyalists embraced their team's new role as gritty underdogs. As the wins mounted, hope returned. Surely, fans told one another, fortune would smile on a team so determined.
But 2008, too, was not the Patriots' year. Despite winning an impressive 11 games, the Patriots were narrowly denied a playoff berth Sunday for the first time since 2002.
The disappointing end to a rollercoaster season left many fans struggling to find their equilibrium yesterday, torn between anger and acceptance as they shopped, returned gifts, or went back to work downtown after a holiday break.
"When you put your fate in the hands in the football gods, it can go either way," said Bernie Wiley, 62, from Sharon, proudly wearing a Patriots hat that celebrated past championships. "You can get helped along, but you can also get smacked."
It was hard, many said, to be too disappointed after an unexpectedly good year. Still, after all the team had endured, it seemed the Patriots deserved better.
"It's a bummer, man," said Erek Wright, 31, from Billerica, wearing a weathered "Pat Patriot" baseball cap in a show of solidarity yesterday. "I kind of think they were cheated out of it."
Especially galling, Wright and others noted in grim detail, is that several teams with records inferior to the Patriots get to play next weekend, including one team, the Arizona Cardinals, that recently lost to New England by 40 points.
Of particular pain was the 24-17 loss on Sunday by the Patriots' rival, the New York Jets. That team played a major role in New England being frozen out of the playoffs.
When David Landy of Medfield, watching at the Ninety Nine Restaurant in Walpole, saw Jets quarterback Brett Farve throw an interception late in the fourth quarter, he knew the season was over.
"I really wanted them to get to the playoffs, but it wasn't the worst thing to happen to the team," said Landy, 15. He said he worried about injuries and the team's defense.
"There were too many what-ifs. If there weren't so many injuries. If [Patriots quarterback Matt] Cassel had more experience," he said.
Although he was disappointed, Landy said he is looking forward to watching the Celtics and Bruins. "We're so lucky to have as many great sports teams," he said.
Some fans, who frowned and furrowed their brow beneath Patriots caps at the slightest mention of their team's fate, said it was too soon for a postmortem. They needed a day of mourning, at the very least, before they could move on.
Most put on a brave face, stoically sizing up the season as a success despite its untimely ending. Many said they were proud of the team for doing as well as it did.
"It was a great season," said Anthony Choquette, 25, of Salisbury, whose hat and hoodie displayed his allegiance. "Cassel did a great job after Brady went down, and they made it exciting. You can't ask for more than that."
Others did ask for more, even if they knew, deep down, that it was a tad greedy under the circumstances. Disloyal, too, and downright un-Patriotic.
"Look at what they've done for us the past eight years," said Ryan Kelley, 36, an Arlington resident having a smoke outside his office in the Financial District.
That's not even counting championships by the Red Sox and Celtics, he added.
Mark Kenney, whose bulky Patriots parka repelled winter's cold as he browsed the outdoor shelves at a downtown bookstore, said he was at peace with the Patriots. But his voice gave him away.
"They gave us a good season," he said before delivering his final judgment. . "They were so gutty, fighting through all the injuries. I just wished they could have gotten in, somehow."
Patriots fans now face another quandary - whom to root for in the postseason. Maybe not the Colts, the Patriots' longtime rival. Obviously not the Giants, after last year's Super Bowl defeat.
Maybe they could get behind a Southern team like Atlanta or Tennessee.
Globe correspondent Thomas Byrne contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com