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Patriots' identity hinges on playoff result

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  January 3, 2012 09:29 AM

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What is at stake now, at least to some degree, is the identity of your New England Patriots. Over the last four regular seasons, the Patriots have won more games than any team in the NFL. And yet, despite that, New England does not possess a single postseason victory.

Beginning on that fateful night in the Arizona desert, in fact, the Patriots seemingly have gone from the Team of the Decade and the model organization in all of professional sports to paper tigers - and in one fell swoop.

In the words of Captain Jack Ross, the Marine prosecutor played by Kevin Bacon in "A Few Good Men": These are the undisputed facts of the case.

Whether all of that changes this month remains to be seen, particularly following a regular season in which the Patriots went an impressive 13-3 and once again established themselves as the top seed in the AFC. Like last season, when New England finished 14-2, the Patriots won their last eight games while lighting up the scoreboard (36.4 points per game) as if they were in Times Square. Quarterback Tom Brady was borderline superhuman along the way, amassing 19 touchdown passes against just two interceptions.

And yet, because of last year, the Patriots had relatively little to gain during the regular season. Short of another 16-0 record or a dramatic improvement by the defense - neither of which occurred - there was going to be relatively little to take place during this regular season to make us feel better about the Patriots' chances for another Super Bowl title.

As a matter of perspective, here are the six NFL teams to have won 40 or more regular season games over the last four years:

New England 48-16
New Orleans 45-19
Pittsburgh 45-19
Baltimore 44-20
Atlanta 43-21
Green Bay 42-22

Of those six clubs, three have won Super Bowls during the same span: the Packers, Saints and Steelers. The Ravens have won at least one playoff game in each of the last three seasons, going a combined 4-3 and once reaching the AFC title game. And then there are the Patriots and Falcons, who have gone winless in the postseason.

Think of that. When you get right down to it, the only difference between the Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons over the last four years has been an average of roughly one win per regular season.

Now there's a measuring stick for you. Bill Walsh's 49ers. Jimmy Johnson's Cowboys. Mike Smith's Falcons.

Yippee.

All of that brings us back to the here and now, to the Jan. 14 game that will take place between the Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals, Steelers, or Denver Broncos. A victory will put New England in the AFC Championship Game. A loss will cement the Patriots' place as a phantom contender. The standards in New England are admittedly different (and completely out of balance) since the Patriots won three Super Bowls in the early part of this millennium, but there is no disputing the fact that the last three Patriots seasons have ended in extraordinarily disappointing fashion.

The defeat to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII? Oh, it was an obvious killer, the Patriots coming within a whisker of immortality. But in 2008, 2009 and 2010, the Patriots' postseason balloon never ever got off the ground.

With regard to this regular season, let's give the Patriots their due. Winning 13 games in any NFL season is a difficult trick, particularly with a defense ranked 31st in the league in yardage, 31st in pass defense, 28th in third down efficiency, 24th in average rushing yards per attempt. Head coach Bill Belichick went into this season with designs of a more aggressive, pressure defense, but was forced to abort the plan early due to the relative ineptitude of his secondary.

To his credit, Belichick adjusted on the fly. (The personnel decisions are another matter, but that is a story for another time.) Belichick cut out potential bad seeds and/or disruptions with Albert Haynesworth and Leigh Bodden, investing in a more coachable and hard-working group that includes an array of undrafted free agents and castoffs. The Patriots have played hard and demonstrated commendable grit, coming back from deficits against Philadelphia, Denver, Miami and Buffalo, the first two of those games on the road.

As Bill Parcells long ago taught us, you are what your record says you are.

At least during the regular season.

So where does this all go from here? Excellent question. Belichick and Brady still have some quality time left together, which makes the last few years all the more frustrating. Too often, it has felt as if the Patriots have been spinning their wheels, unable to support a Hall of Fame coach and a Hall of Fame quarterback with a legitimate supporting cast. In the aftermath of the lockout, there is every chance that the rest of the league has slipped back to the Patriots this year more than the Patriots have ascended to the next level, though that is largely irrelevant so long as the Pats end up where we want them to be.

And so where, exactly, is that? The Super Bowl is an obvious choice. But more than winning another title - the fourth of the Belichick-Brady era - what is more important for the Patriots this postseason is to show growth again, to get to the AFC title game at a minimum, to show that they belong right there with New Orleans, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Baltimore among the truly elite teams in the current NFL.

And to prove that they really are not at all anything like the Atlanta Falcons.

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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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