THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

Breaking down a failure

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By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / January 18, 2011

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The Patriots’ season was a failure.

The rational part of our brain wants to congratulate the Patriots for exceeding preseason expectations and compiling the best record in the NFL. This is a young team that was facing a rugged schedule, and some of us (me) thought they would go 8-8. They had a raft of undrafted free agents (22) and 11 rookies. They ran the table in the second half, beating opponents by more than 21 points per game. They won at Pittsburgh, at Chicago, and at San Diego. They dealt Randy Moss, then magically got better on offense.

All good. But the reality is that this season goes down as a failure because of what happened Sunday. And because of what should have happened Sunday.

It was all teed up for a return to the Super Bowl, a chance to right the wrongs of the upset in the desert at the hands of the Giants Feb. 3, 2008. The 14-2 Patriots had the highest-scoring offense in football. They set an NFL record for fewest turnovers and had a plus-28 advantage in takeaways. They had home field for the playoffs. They had the scary Colts and Ravens taken out of the mix. All they had to do was beat a team they beat, 45-3, then beat another team they thrashed on the road . . . and they were back in the Super Bowl.

And now the tournament continues without the Patriots — the team everybody said was the best. The Bears, Packers, Steelers, and Jets are the NFL’s Final Four. The Patriots beat all of them. The aggregate score of New England’s four victories over the remaining Super Bowl contenders was 151-63.

So this season goes down as a failure. It was a golden opportunity and it is gone. There are only going to be so many of these opportunities in the professional lifetime of Tom Brady. We all know the Patriots should have gone to Dallas.

Compounding the missed opportunity we have the emergence of the Jets. Make no mistake about it; the Jets are going to be a nightmare for years. Sunday’s shocker at Gillette is to the Jets what the 2004 American League Championship Series was to the Red Sox. Jet fans always are going to be able to throw this in the face of Patriots fans. Forever.

“This is probably the first time the Jets have taken something important away from the Patriots,’’ said linebacker Bart Scott. “Game on. And they hate us forever because the feeling is mutual . . . At the end of the day, this is a soft group . . . I guess you guys got the guru on the other side. You guys talk about how great he is. Maybe you guys will start giving our coach some credit for what he’s doing.’’

The Patriots cleared out their lockers yesterday and noble Patrick Chung took all the blame for the botched fake punt that turned the game around at the end of the first half. Chung comes across as a stand-up guy, but I still can’t figure out why a second-year player is allowed to make a decision of that magnitude. If Terry Francona tells David Ortiz that he’s on his own on the base paths — and then Big Papi gets thrown out trying to steal home — do we blame Ortiz?

Bill Belichick still hasn’t adequately explained the nonchalant play calling in the fourth quarter. Trailing by 10 with 13 minutes to play, the Patriots went about their business with no urgency, running 7:45 off the clock with a 14-play drive that produced no points. After that, it was too late to do anything.

“If we score on that drive, it’s a one-score game with five minutes to go,’’ said Belichick. “Without the score, now you’re down by two scores with five minutes to go — now that’s a problem.’’

Yes. The wasted time made the game unwinnable. If the Patriots had perhaps spent only four minutes not scoring, maybe there would have been time left for two scores.

Yesterday on WEEI, Brandon Meriweather said, “They didn’t do anything except play harder than us. They wanted it more.’’

Not exactly what you want to hear from your Pro Bowl safety.

In the end it looked like maybe the Patriots had too many young players who don’t know what the playoffs are about. Maybe they believed all the great things everybody was saying about them. Maybe they were overconfident.

Ultimately, we all know this wasn’t really a 14-2 team. It was nothing like the 14-2 teams of 2003 and 2004. The Patriots were suspect on the defensive side of the ball. Brady gave them a lot of big early leads and they looked great with big leads when the other team was taking chances. The 2010 Patriots were classic frontrunners. But when somebody came to town and hit them in the mouth, they didn’t know what to do.

So it’s a long, cold winter. Watching the rest of these playoffs will be unbearable because the Patriots were in position to return to the Super Bowl. They haven’t won a playoff game in three years. They still should be playing. And that’s why this season was a failure.

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

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