THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

In the end, they're mere mortals

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / January 11, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH - It was great while it lasted, but even a pigheaded Patriots pigskin buff must acknowledge that the dynasty is over.

There was a time, not long ago, when there was a Patriot Way. Now the Patriots have lost their way. They are just another one-and-out playoff team, and not a likable one at that.

That black night in the desert in Glendale, Ariz., two years ago? That was it. Since the pursuit of perfection fell short in Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots have been outside the circle of NFL royalty. This is the way the late commissioner Pete Rozelle envisioned things when he pushed for parity at the exclusion of excellence. The once-great Patriots are now first-round playoff fodder.

The sixth-seeded Baltimore Ravens came to Gillette Stadium yesterday and demolished the once-unbeatable-at-home Patriots, 33-14. Foxborough’s frozen fans booed with gusto as the Ravens steamrolled to a 24-0 first-quarter lead.

“I’d have been booing us, too, the way we played,’’ said quarterback Tom Brady, the man who best knows that this was not a team of nobility, effort, and hard work like the teams he led in the last decade.

This was bad. It was the Winter Un-Classic. Through the golden years at Gillette the motto has been “do your job,’’ but yesterday it appeared the only guys who’d done their job were the Guatemalan snow shovelers who’d been hired to de-ice the stadium. Baltimore’s Ray Rice went 83 yards up the gut on the first play from scrimmage. Rice could have motored up the ramp and onto Route 1, Gump-like, before anyone touched him. The carnage was on. The Patriots succumbed to a hail of interceptions, strip sacks, misplays, and blown coverages.

Proud Vince Wilfork (13 tackles), a mountain of a man who was here in the golden days of ’04, said, “They [Ravens] came in and wanted it more than us, and it showed. We got beat up and it don’t feel good. We didn’t come to play. We didn’t play like it was a playoff game. For them to come in here and do what they did, they could basically have been playing out there with a JV football team and they probably would have given a better effort than we did.

“You saw one team come in here and play it like it was a playoff game and then you seen another club that just went out there going through the motions.’’

Wilfork played with Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison, Ty Law, and Ted Johnson - true Patriots who would have shared his embarrassment had they been part of this debacle.

“We just had a different team this year,’’ Brady said. “We had a lot of problems over the course of the year.’’

Bingo. Things got off to a rotten start when Bill Belichick arrogantly dealt Seymour on the eve of the first game. The trade made the Patriots weaker for 2009, but fans got on board anyway because, well, there was a great draft pick coming in 2011.

The Patriots squeaked by the Bills in the opener, but it was never right. Road losses in New York and Denver brought out red flags. Then came the blown game against the Colts when Belichick went for it on fourth and 2. The Patriots never recovered. They could not beat good teams. They were blown out in New Orleans on “Monday Night Football.’’ Horrible losses in Miami and Houston marked the stretch run. They coughed up big fourth-quarter leads. Team MVP Wes Welker blew out his knee in the final game of the season (Welker watched yesterday from the owner’s box and probably had trouble seeing since Robert and Jonathan Kraft were in the row in front of him in their traditional lifeguard chairs). It was clear Brady was hurting all along.

Brady soldiered on, but he knew the mystique was gone. Without calling out his teammates by name, he spoke of the seismic shift. He spoke of the important elements of past champions - “mental toughness and leadership and discipline and commitment’’ - and said those were things “we displayed at times and certainly didn’t display at other times. I think that’s something that we all reflect on, and individually, that’s what we have to make more of a commitment to each other.’’

It’s all right there, folks. In Patriots code. From the consummate leader of this team.

Making matters worse, Rex Ryan and the hated Jets are still alive. The Patriots had hoped to be in San Diego for Round 2 next week, but now it is the Jets who’ll play that game. Ouch. Wonder if the Patriots still can hire Pete Carroll before he agrees to terms with the Seahawks.

Only kidding. But this was a horrible season for the once-infallible Belichick. He shed too many defensive veterans at once. He acquired too many guys who failed to buy into the system. He triggered an international debate on the merits of punting when he curiously went for it against the Colts. He operated without any discernible plan in the finale in Houston. And yesterday, by his own admission, he was outcoached by John Harbaugh.

A raft of absolutes was shattered. Belichick and Brady had never lost a home playoff game (8-0). The Patriots were 11-1 lifetime in the playoffs at home and hadn’t lost a home playoff game since 1978, when they were beaten by Wade Phillips’s father. Brady had won 23 consecutive starts at Gillette. The Patriots never had lost to the Ravens (5-0).

Now all those streaks are gone. The Patriots of 2009-10 were just another 10-7 team. They were three seeds who turned into first-round frauds.

Pitchers and catchers report Feb. 18.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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