In today's world of professional sports, you generally get what you deserve. There are no real flukes. You keep what you take, and nobody gives you anything.
Which brings us to the Patriots.
Fifty-two weeks removed from their heartbreaking loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots will be spectators this weekend when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals meet in Tampa in Super Bowl XLIII. Hopeless optimists continue to wonder if the Pats might have made hay in the postseason coming off a spirited late-season run, only fueling the notion that the Pats somehow got jobbed following an 11-5 regular season in the socialistic NFL.
If you are one of these people, you are:
a) a homer
d) a card-carrying Belichicklet, or
e) all of the above
Lest anyone interpret this as an indictment of the Patriots, it isn’t. Instead, it is quite the opposite. Somewhere along the line during this extraordinary run in the history of Boston sports — this is, after all, the Golden Age — we began to equate successful seasons with championships. They are not necessarily one and the same. Rarely are championships expected. Almost always, a successful season is one in which a team reaches its potential.
Once Tom Brady went down in Week 1, the standards completely changed for the Patriots. Most of us agreed that something in the vicinity of 10-6 would qualify as a very good year. The Pats ended up giving us one win more, something that primarily serves as testament to their coach (Bill Belichick) and backup quarterback (Matt Cassel), but reflects just as well on any man who wore a Patriots uniform this season, from BenJarvus Green-Ellis to Matthew Slater.
In the end, we owe them all a pat on the helmet for a job well done.
Just the same, there are those who will watch Super Bowl XLIII with very green eyes, as if the Steelers somehow are occupying a place that rightfully belongs to the Patriots. These are the people who believe the Patriots somehow got cheated by the system, that they could have beaten any team in the postseason, who are using the 47-7 victory over the Cardinals in Week 16 as a statement of New England’s superiority.
We should know better
Excuse us here with our feet on the ground, but when did we in New England get so arrogant and downright greedy? When did we emphasize a blowout win over an Arizona team that had checked out while ignoring a 33-10 loss to the Steelers, at home, on national television? When did we begin to arbitrarily assign great value to wins over weak (or invisible) teams and no value to one-sided losses?
Fact: This NFL season, the Patriots played five games against playoff opponents in which both teams still had a vested interest. (That excludes the Arizona affair.) They lost four of them by a combined score of 119-48. Their only victory was a 48-28 decision at Miami against a Dolphins team that defeated them in Week 3, 38-13, meaning they effectively played Miami to a draw over the span of eight quarters.
Yet some still compare the Pats to the Steelers more than they would to the Dolphins, a group that many regarded as an overachieving, heartwarming bunch more than a championship threat.
So why don’t they see the Pats the same way?
Of course, these are the same people who walk off the golf course having shot an 82, lamenting the three putts that lipped out and might have produced a 79. They never remember the shot that ricocheted off a tree branch and landed in the middle of the fairway, producing a birdie instead of penalty strokes. If you play the game long enough, the breaks usually even out in the end, and you get exactly what you deserve.
As Bill Parcells taught us, you are what you are.
In these parts, given the success of our local teams in recent years, we should now have a far better grasp of what a champion looks like and what it takes to win a title. Independent of Brady, does anyone really believe these Pats were anywhere near as good as the teams that won Super Bowls in 2002, 2004, and 2005? The hopeless optimists point out that the Pats of January (and February) 2002 went 11-5 that regular season, resulting in a first-round bye that led, eventually, to the snow game against Oakland and the infamous tuck rule. There is the suggestion that this team was somehow just as good and just as worthy, all because the Pats happen to have the same regular-season record and a coach capable of winning any matchup at any given time.
But could he really win this year, with that defense, in three consecutive weeks on the road? Based on what we learned this season, the odds say no. And that’s really all we can base it on.
Patriots had their chances
Clearly, as the Cardinals are now teaching us, anything is possible. The entire NFL is built on that singular truth. Using that logic, the Dolphins could have won the Super Bowl, too. Or maybe the Jets. Or maybe the Cowboys. In the end, none of those teams will hoist the Lombardi Trophy simply because they did not take the necessary steps to do so, whether during the regular season or postseason, against the Steelers, Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens, or Philadelphia Eagles. The first step in winning a title is giving yourself a chance, something the Patriots did not do despite ample opportunities during the course of the year.
To wit: The Pats had a chance to defeat the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium in Week 8 … and failed. They had a chance to beat the Jets at Foxborough … and failed. They played the Steelers at home and got pummeled. They went to San Diego and got vaporized.
And yet, in the eyes of many, the Pats still got jobbed.
As for the realists, we all know the challenges that now face these Patriots. Belichick is certainly among this group. Between now and September, the Pats need to improve their defense and special-teams play, and settle the issue (perceived or real) at quarterback. If and when the Pats do that, they will be contenders for the Super Bowl, as they have been at the start of every season for the entirety of this decade.
In recent years, from the Deion Branch holdout to last year’s upset loss to the Giants, the Pats might have given away a Super Bowl title or two.
But really, people, let’s be honest with ourselves.
This year wasn’t one of them.
Tony Massarotti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be read at www.boston.com/massarotti