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Dan Shaughnessy

Angst for the memories

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / October 17, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — Losses sting. Season-ending losses last. They are the broken hearts of competition. The mind never forgets.

One of the curses of athletic success is that it generally puts you into some kind of tournament. Playoffs are designed to produce a single champion, which means that most good teams end their season with a loss. Talk to friends who played on a winning high school sports team and you’ll find that 95 percent of them finished their careers with a loss.

“I can remember games I lost in high school,’’ Bill Belichick said this week. “I lost one game at Andover — I remember that one. We got beat by a Brown freshman team at lacrosse. I was undefeated in football but lost one game in lacrosse. Lost one game all year, but you remember those.’’

When a reporter followed with a query about the Andover-Exeter prep rivalry, Belichick plunged deeper into the Way Back Machine — all the way to Annapolis High School, where he was starting center for football coach Al Laramore.

“Severna Park bested us my senior year of high school,’’ Belichick remembered. “St. Mary’s beat us at lacrosse in high school. I remember those games. I don’t think you forget those if they were important to you. Maybe if that game’s not important to you, you forget it, but if the game’s important to you, I think you remember.’’

It was one of those breakthrough moments, when, out of nowhere, the coach dropped his stone-face facade, spoke from the gut, and spilled a little truth. It was refreshing. And real. When you are 18, nothing is more important than a tournament game. It matters. And the abrupt finish stays with you for the rest of your days.

Coach Bill’s waltz down memory lane was prompted by references to the 33-14 beatdown the Patriots suffered at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens in the first round of the playoffs at Gillette 10 months ago.

Initially, Belichick shifted into obtuse overdrive, droning, “We really just try to focus on this particular game and do the best we can on that one.’’

When a reporter pressed, asking how long Belichick “personally’’ holds on to playoff losses, the crusty coach cracked.

Personal. That’s a great way to characterize season-ending losses. The final game of John Hannah’s Hall of Fame career was a Super Bowl thumping at the hands of the Chicago Bears. Think Hog ever forgets that one?

Belichick’s response underscores the emotion that will be on parade when the Patriots take the field this afternoon against the same Ravens who annihilated New England (it was 24-0 after one quarter) at the beginning of this calendar year. You can be pretty sure Coach Bill has reminded his players about that game a few times this week.

Bob Kraft used the word “embarrassed’’ after the playoff loss to the Ravens. It was embarrassing. It is the only time Tom Brady and Belichick have lost a playoff game in Foxborough.

“We got manhandled by a damn good team,’’ said Brady. “And everything we said we wanted to do, we didn’t do. Penalties, turnovers, we couldn’t convert on third down, couldn’t control the tempo of the game.

“There are a lot of reasons for motivation, and certainly, when the team gives it to you like they did, you’re always anxious to get out there and play them again.’’

Today’s file of plot lines is thick. In many ways, it feels like the true opening game of the season. This is New England’s first game since the infamous Randy Moss trade. This is the return of Deion Branch. We are eager to see whether the Patriots will dink and dunk, spreading the offense around to the kid tight ends and the vertically challenged trio of Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, and Danny Woodhead. It’s a coming-out party for Brandon Tate. And let’s not forget that Belichick is supposed to be unbeatable after the bye week.

On the other sideline, we’ll see Ravens linebacker coach Dean Pees, who was the Patriots defensive coordinator on that ill-fated January afternoon. Doubt Pees has much to offer Ray Lewis, who is furiously crushing everything in his path, moving into Lawrence Taylor territory.

Today would have marked the return to New England of wide receiver Donté Stallworth, but he is out with a foot injury. Now a member of the Ravens, Stallworth was part of New England’s 18-0 run of 2007.

Ah, 2007. Now there’s a great season with a bad final scene. Think about it. Does anybody remember much about beating Jacksonville and San Diego in the 2007 playoffs?

No. We remember Glendale, Ariz., and David Tyree and Plaxico Burress matched up against Ellis Hobbs.

It was the worst. It was right there with those losses against Severna Park, St. Mary’s, and that unforgettable lacrosse game against the Brown freshmen. You don’t forget games like that. Not if they’re important to you.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist.

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