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As football nears return, Patriots look to bounce back

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  July 18, 2011 10:24 AM

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When last we saw them, the Patriots looked shellshocked. The New York Jets stunned the Patriots in the AFC divisional playoffs at Gillette Stadium, a defeat that ended the football season in New England only weeks before the lockout that has wiped the NFL from our consciousness.

Now football seems on the verge of returning.

And so New England’s quest for another Super Bowl championship begins anew.

Don’t look now Patriots followers, but a funny thing happened in the midst of the work stoppage: the Patriots became Boston’s most championship-starved franchise. Thanks to the Bruins’ victory over the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup championship, the Patriots have now gone longer without a title than any of Boston’s remaining primary sports franchises.

The Red Sox won in 2007. The Celtics won in 2008. The Bruins won in 2011.

Meanwhile, the Pats haven’t won a championship since February 2005, the date of a 24-21 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles that gave the Pats their third Super Bowl title in four seasons.

Lest anyone forget, despite an especially young defense and as many questions as they have had entering a season in quite some time, the Patriots last season went 14-2, the best regular season record in the NFL. Then they went poof. The Jets stunned the Patriots with a 28-21 victory at Foxboro last January, handing the Pats a third consecutive postseason defeat and their second straight at Gillette, where the Patriots are 16-0 over the last two regular seasons, 0-2 in their last two postseason games.

In the aftermath, many wondered what the Patriots lacked in January. (“A good game plan?” asked owner Robert Kraft.) Meanwhile, analysts like Jamie Dukes of the NFL Network wondered if the Pats really weren’t as good as their record suggested, calling New England’s 14-2 performance “fool’s gold.”

So what was it? Were the Pats really something closer to an 11-5 team than a 14-2 juggernaut? Or are we now in the proverbial twilight of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era, one thus far categorized by unmatched success and achievement.

As free agency nears, thanks to the lockout, the same questions remain about these Patriots. Will Matt Light be re-signed? Will Logan Mankins return? Are the Pats content to go with their current rotation of running backs and receivers, or does Belichick have something bigger planned in free agency?

Meanwhile, do the Pats ever have any intention of adding a true pass rusher to a defense that was incapable of getting off the field for long stretches last season, placing an inordinate amount of pressure on the secondary?

Whatever the answers to those specifics – and the league remains shut down pending formalization of the new collective bargaining agreement – the bigger picture remains indisputable, no matter how high the Pats rank (No. 6) on the list of the 50 most valuable franchise in sports. That is just the business. With regard to the football, the Patriots are now far closer to the end than the beginning of the Brady-Belichick era, and replacing one – let alone both – is a daunting proposition.

Translation: the clock is ticking more loudly than ever. In Brady’s last four postseason games, he has throw seven touchdown passes and seven interceptions. In the last two postseason affairs – both at Foxboro – Belichick defenses have allowed a total of 61 points to the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets, defense-oriented teams hardly known for their offensive explosiveness.

So what gives? Have Belichick and Brady lost their magical touch come playoff time? Or are the Pats now constructed in such a way that an inordinate amount is expected of their coach and quarterback, among the greatest ever in their respective positions?

Indeed, for as rewarding as the regular season was a year ago, the postseason was nothing short of backbreaking. That reality will render virtually any regular season success this year relatively meaningless. Think of it. If the Pats have a mediocre or substandard regular season, they will be asked if the playoff defeat proves last year was a fluke. If they have an outstanding regular season, they will be asked why they haven’t been able to win in the playoffs of late. Thanks to last year, New England is now in the unenviable position of being able to accomplish almost nothing before the postseason.

In the interim, Belichick has draft picks to sign and roster issues to resolve, all during an abbreviated offseason.

For what it’s worth, in assessing the NFL as of today – before free agency, that is to say – many evaluators regard the Patriots as the team to beat in the AFC. Such praise is certainly justified. And yet, given the enormous success the Patriots enjoyed during the first five years of the Belichick-Brady era, our standards have been set absurdly high, the Patriots entering each and every season with words all but scribbled on their windshield with a bar of soap: Super Bowl or bust.

This year, in the wake of last season’s playoff failure, the Patriots may feel that pressure more greatly than ever before.

With a repeat of last year’s playoff performance, after all – and with something less impressive during the regular season – we may be asking an altogether different question at this time next year.

Namely, whether the Belichick-Brady era is all but over.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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