FOXBOROUGH - In reviewing a 2007 season that was filled with unexpected twists and turns, Patriots coach Bill Belichick acknowledged that the pain still lingers from losing Super Bowl XLII.
"Sure," he said. "It's hard to think of 18-1 as being a disappointing season. It is. We had our chances, but in the end . . . We just needed to make one more play somewhere along the line and we just weren't able to do it."
As of Sunday evening, Belichick had yet to watch a tape of the Patriots' 17-14 loss to the Giants. He plans to do so at some point.
Reflecting on what unfolded that night in Glendale, Ariz. - when the Giants dashed the Patriots' hopes for a historic 19-0 season - Belichick could not pinpoint one aspect that might have altered the outcome.
"You get beat in the last 30 seconds, so anything could have made a difference anywhere along the line that any of us did - players, coaches," he said.
"I think we all feel the same way. I wish we could have done one thing a little better and it might have changed it. But we didn't."
While the Super Bowl loss has been difficult to digest, Belichick acknowledged that the season was rewarding in several ways, first and foremost because of the way the players approached their work.
"I think just the overall consistency, even on a day-to-day basis, of the players - their work ethic, practice, meetings, trying to get better every day, trying to work hard to improve," he said. "It's a long season, a lot of practices, a lot of games, a lot of opportunities, but I thought they went about it the right way and they were consistent at it, which is hard to do over that length of time."
Asked to pinpoint a turning point during the year, Belichick turned the calendar back to early November.
"If there was a key point in the season, it was probably the Indianapolis game [Nov. 4]," he said. "They had beaten us three straight times, so everybody felt good walking out of there."
On that day, the Patriots overcame a 20-10 fourth-quarter deficit to come away with a 24-20 road victory that made them 9-0.
"It was a big win for us," said Belichick. "I don't think anyone felt like that was our best game of the year, but we were still able to win."
If the Colts game was a turning point of sorts, what came next was one of the most grueling stretches of the year. Following a bye week, the Patriots had three straight prime-time games - at Buffalo, home vs. Philadelphia, and at Baltimore.
Belichick acknowledged it was a tough part of the schedule for preparation purposes.
"You just felt like you were behind going into each week," he said. "It's hard to get on your regular routine in terms of film and all that."
One line of thinking is that those games - the Eagles and Ravens nearly pulled upsets - took a lot out of the Patriots coming down the stretch, when they traditionally have played their best football. Belichick didn't see it that way.
"I think we came through that OK," he said. "Every team, at the end of the 16-game regular-season schedule, and a couple playoff games, it's going to take something out of you. It should, if you put anything into it.
"But I think we were OK. I don't think we were drained. We just needed to do a little better that last game."
Challenge after challengeOver the course of the year, the Patriots faced a variety of challenges, especially off the field, starting with the death of reserve defensive lineman Marquise Hill in late May.
Cornerback Asante Samuel stayed away for most of training camp because of his contract situation; safety Rodney Harrison was suspended four games at the start of the season for violating the NFL's banned substances policy; the league penalized and fined Belichick and the Patriots for videotaping procedures after the first week of the season; receiver Randy Moss faced allegations of domestic battery leading into the playoffs; and quarterback Tom Brady's right ankle became a hot-button topic prior to the Super Bowl after he was photographed by paparazzi in New York City wearing a protective boot.
When assessing the challenging aspects of the season, however, Belichick focused solely on what took place on the field.
"It seemed like there was something every week," he said, noting the difficult schemes of the opposition and his feeling that the Patriots "played a really tough schedule."
"I thought being able to go undefeated in the division, that was a pretty big accomplishment, too," Belichick added. "I'd say the week-to-week challenges - we faced some tough weather games at the end of the year, road games, faced a lot of good teams. It seemed like every week was either one of those or multiple, and that was very challenging."
With the Super Bowl 16 days behind him, Belichick noted the Patriots are now transitioning into team-building mode for 2008.
"We're kind of right at that point where the most important thing is to evaluate our team going forward, what we're going to do with the guys we have," he said. "There are some guys we don't have rights to that we either have to find a way to get on our team or move on without them, one way or the other. I think that process is really just starting right now.
"We're trying to get caught up on some of the draft stuff and trying to take a little bit of a look at the free agent market. You don't know how that is going to go. As some of these other guys come onto the market as they're released, there are guys we would at least talk about and then it's whether we want to move forward on them or not. It varies from player to player."
Asked about the status of Moss, whose contract expired after the season, Belichick said, "I'd say the same thing about all those players. Each player's situation is a little bit different. As always, we'll try to do what's best for our football team and have to take into consideration what's best for the player and see whether the two can meet at some type of position that everyone is comfortable with. We'll just take it on a case-by-case basis."
Belichick was asked if it was challenging to put the pieces together for 2008 not knowing whether linebackers Junior Seau and Tedy Bruschi - both of whom had contracts expire and could retire - will return.
"There isn't any player that I think I could sit here and tell you, that was on our roster at the end of the year, [who] definitely won't be back," he said. "I'm not saying they are all going to be back, by any stretch. Players that are unrestricted, we'll talk to each of them. Some of those players may go to free agency; that doesn't mean they won't come back.
"That's kind of where we are. To be honest, we're still pretty early in the process. We have two more weeks before free agency starts [Feb. 29], to try to pull things together. A big part of that is our own internal evaluations and making sure we can do the right thing for our team, whether it be contract, or role, or how many guys in a certain spot, or whatever. In a lot of cases, we haven't really finished that process yet."
Ninth season approachesBelichick indicated that the coaching staff also could be altered.
"I think that's in the same boat as the players," he said. "There are a couple situations that are not quite nailed down, for one reason or another, that I'm sure will eventually get resolved. But they're not quite there yet. That may mean something transpires, it may not. I'm not sure."
With 2008 marking his ninth season in New England, Belichick reiterated his thoughts from last summer regarding how much he enjoys being Patriots coach.
"Oh yeah, sure, absolutely. I just wish it had ended a little bit differently last year," he said. "I like working for the Kraft family, I like working here with the Patriots - our players, our staff. It's a situation I enjoy. I just hope I can do a little better job."
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.