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THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Tony Massarotti

On balance, all things are not equal

Without a deep threat, Tom Brady was targeting Aaron Hernandez (not pictured) and Rob Gronkowski (87) on the final play. Without a deep threat, Tom Brady was targeting Aaron Hernandez (not pictured) and Rob Gronkowski (87) on the final play. (Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff)
By Tony Massarotti
Globe Staff / February 7, 2012
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In the aftermath of something like this, the truth sits somewhere in the rubble, buried in piles of questions and missed opportunities. Sifting through the debris can take some time, and in the NFL, there is rarely any rest for the weary.

So what do you think: In the modern NFL, are the Patriots really that close to a championship? Or was this postseason some indication they are as flawed - or more so - than the other teams who consider themselves to be at the top of the league hierarchy?

Where the Patriots go from here remains to be seen, but let’s start with the positives. In 2009, the Patriots were bounced in the wild-card round of the playoffs. In 2010, they were bounced in the divisional round.

This year, they made it all the way to the Super Bowl before succumbing to the New York Giants, 21-17, Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in a wonderfully competitive and entertaining game that ended in heartbreak.

The point is that the Patriots are getting better, for sure, though they are not yet where Bill Belichick and Tom Brady expect them to be.

What Sunday night reaffirmed, if anything, is that the Patriots still have some work to do, particularly if they expect to maximize the final years of Brady’s (and Belichick’s?) career. Last month, Brady told us the clock is ticking. With or without a healthy Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots need a viable receiving threat outside the numbers and they need help on defense, at least if they expect to win Super Bowls.

This year, more than any other in recent memory, the NFL affirmed that regular-season play and postseason play are entirely different things. Balance still wins.

The NFL seems to have become a jazzed-up version of the Arena League during the regular season, no fewer than six quarterbacks passing for more than 4,600 yards this season. The list includes Drew Brees, Brady, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, and Eli Manning, the last of whom had easily the best defense among the group.

So guess who won the championship?

Eli.

Of course, New England fans are likely to point out that the Giants’ defense during the regular season was marginally better than the Patriots’, but that’s missing the point. In their final six games this season, the Giants played the Jets, Cowboys, Falcons, Packers, 49ers, and Patriots.

All of those clubs ranked in the top half of the league in scoring, the Packers, Patriots, and Falcons finishing a respective, first, third, and seventh. New York held that group to an average of 14 points per game, the large majority of that play coming during a postseason in which NFL officials generally swallowed the whistles and actually started letting people play football again.

To their credit, the Patriots played better defense, too. And yet, in the Super Bowl, the New England defense did not force a single three-and-out. New York’s eight possessions lasted 10, 9, 8, 8, 10, 9, 11, and 9 snaps, which is why the Giants held the ball for a whopping 37:05, a number that would have been higher had New York drained the clock properly at the end of the game.

You know that familiar Patriots argument that points - and not yards - are what matters?

Horse feathers.

The yards mattered Sunday night. It mattered because the Patriots couldn’t get Manning off the field and, when they did, punter Steve Weatherford was working from no worse than his 45-yard line with three of his four punts coming from the Patriots’ 42, 41, and 43.

As a result, New England’s average starting field position was its 16-yard line. Maybe that doesn’t matter during the regular season against teams such as the Broncos and Bills, but it matters during the playoffs.

The bottom line is that the Giants completely dictated the tempo and tenor of the game because they controlled the ball - pretty much on both sides. Had the Giants not committed at least two drive-killing penalties, the game wouldn’t have been so close.

For Belichick, the challenge is to fix that, be that through acquisitions in the linebacking corps or secondary.

Jerod Mayo is a nice tackler, but as the Giants’ first touchdown proved, he isn’t exactly Derrick Brooks when it comes to defending the pass. The Giants ran and threw on the Patriots, and it allowed them to walk away with a second Super Bowl victory over the Patriots in four seasons.

Again, let’s say this in no uncertain terms: The Patriots are getting better again.

Nonetheless, Sunday night’s game offers further perspective on the AFC Championship game victory over the Ravens, who were saying the same thing two weeks ago that the Patriots are saying today: If only our receiver could have held onto the ball.

If we’re going to suggest that the Ravens need to improve their offense (or, more specifically, their passing game) to win a Super Bowl, then we need to say the same about the Patriots defense.

For New England this season, the road to the Super Bowl was impeccably paved. Until the victory in the AFC championship, the Patriots did not beat a team that finished the season with a winning record.

The Patriots earned both their first-round bye and their divisional round matchup with the Broncos, but there is now significant doubt as to whether that road is the best way to win a Super Bowl anymore.

The Giants, after all, were the No. 4 seed in the NFC, though they possessed a worse regular-season record (9-7) than every playoff team but the Broncos (8-8). New York subsequently beat the NFC’s top two seeds, Green Bay and San Francisco, on the road. Sunday’s win also gave the Giants a pair of wins over the Patriots, one on the road, one at a neutral site.

In winning the Super Bowl last year, the Packers were a No. 6 seed, though similarly blessed with balance.

And if you want to add 2007 into the mix, the Giants were a No. 5 seed that similarly marched through a four-game postseason scheduled once deemed to be a minefield.

But not anymore.

Now, come playoff time in the NFL, the most balanced team can win four games far more easily than an imbalanced team can win three, something becoming indisputably clear to those of us in New England and, perhaps, even Bill Belichick.

Tony Massarotti can be reached at tmassarotti@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com/massarotti.

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