A few parting thoughts on an afternoon of exit interviews, postmortems, and aggravating day-old what-ifs . . .
1. When Bill Belichick addressed -- briefly and curtly last night -- the botched fake punt at the end of the first half that will torment Patriots fans through the offseason, the closest he came to an explanation for what happened was saying "We just made a bad mistake on the play." What isn't clear is whether the bad mistake he referenced was Patrick Chung's decision to call the fake -- and we suspect Zoltan Mesko may have his tongue removed by Ernie Adams for revealing that bit of information, further confirmed by Chung today -- or that he made a physical error that led to the failure of a foolish, desperate play that never should have been run in the first place. The hunch is that Belichick's reference was to the former. A minute and 14 seconds left in the half with the ball on the Jets 38, down 4 points and facing a fourth and 4? Unless all 11 Jets defenders are 10 yards down field and looking up at the pretty sky, you punt, stop 'em, head into the locker room and regroup for the second half. There's no second option. Chung's going to be heck of a player -- in some ways, he already is -- but that was one cruel lesson for a young player to learn yesterday.
2. I understand why Belichick benched Wes Welker for the first drive -- there was apparently a directive not to engage the Jets in trash talk, Welker ignored his coach's orders (albeit in an absolutely hilarious way), and it ended up agitating them even more, though I doubt it had any effect on their performance. That said, I wish Belichick hadn't disciplined Welker. It just felt like an ominous way to begin the game, and Welker is not only essential, but he's one of the few players who should be allowed a bit of leeway.
3. I still haven't heard an adequate explanation for the offense's lack of urgency on that already infamous second-half drive during which they ate up eight minutes of the clock while trailing by 10 points . . . and gave the ball up on downs with little more than five minutes remaining. I know Tom Brady said the Jets had six defensive backs on the field at the time, but that doesn't explain the . . . I don't know, casualness? -- of their approach. The Donovan McNabb/Andy Reid jokes are well beyond cliched at this point, but the Eagles' final, lolly-gagging drive at the end of Super Bowl XXXIX is exactly what it felt like, except from the opposite, gruesome point of view. The crowd at Gillette was too often stunned into silence yesterday, but if you listened closely, you could almost hear cries of "What are they doing? Hurry up!" as one Danny Woodhead run followed another.
4. Another frustration with the passing game/offensive in general: In all of his blabber in the buildup to the game, Bart Scott basically revealed the Jets' defensive game-plan -- funnel the Patriots receivers toward a zone defense in the middle of the field while letting cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie take care of business on the outside. I don't know if the Patriots thought he was running his mouth for the sake of running his mouth, but in retrospect, giving credence to Scott's tip-off on the Jets' altered scheme might have helped them solve it a little bit sooner.
5. Rob Gronkowski, with four catches on six targets, should have been more of a factor -- he's the one receiver on the Patriots who is matchup hell for an opponent, the one who has proven that the advantage is always his on a jump ball or in tight coverage because of his enormous catching radius. The Patriots got too cute by utilizing Alge Crumpler time and again as a receiver, and unless his hip injury was worse than we were led to believe, I can't believe there wasn't some way to get Aaron Hernandez more involvement than one catch for four yards on a single target. So many questions, so few answers.
6. Antonio Cromartie said after the game that his feelings about Brady haven't changed, though this time he at least chose classier adjectives. He did note that he likes Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger. "I love Ben, man," Cromartie said. "Ben's a competitor, man." One can only imagine what the topics of conversation between those two Man of the Year candidates might be.
7. I'm still not sure what to make of Rex Ryan -- whether his bluster building up to the game was just Rex being Rex or a calculated attempt to show his faith in his team while taking the heat off his players, whether he's a great coach or merely a good one who has managed to meld Mike Tannenbaum's collection of loud-mouthed camera-hogs into a cohesive team for the time being, whether he digs feet or really digs feet. But I know this: He's now 3-2 against the Patriots and Belichick in his two years at the helm of the Jets, and Belichick's respect for him seems genuine. It's funny, because their personalities are slightly different, you forget that they have a lot in common -- a love for defense, fathers who taught them the game, horrible wardrobe choices . . .
8. So from a Patriots fan's perspective, let me see if I have the next couple of weeks straight: We root for the Steelers to demolish the Jets in a manner that makes the Patriots' humiliating defeat to the Bears in Super Bowl XX look like a friendly game of touch football in the back yard with the kids because . . . because they're the Jets, that's why. Then, the proper approach in Dallas is to root for the Packers/Bears to take down the Steelers since no one wants to see Ben Roethlisberger equal Brady's total of three rings (all coming since the Patriots' last Super Bowl win). Sounds like a plan to me.
9. As you've probably deduced, I'm not quite ready to bone up on the reasons for optimism just yet. Sure, you can't help but remind yourself about those three choices among the first 33 picks in the upcoming draft, or that Leigh Bodden and Ty Warren will return from their lost seasons, and think that this defense will be able to stop a whole hell of a lot more than a nosebleed next year. But that stuff is for the days to come. The day after a promising season dies, you can't help but perform the autopsy and hope it ends up being somehow cathartic. Beyond the moments large (the Chung blunder) and small (where was BenJarvus Green-Ellis) that added up to yesterday's crusher, the one frustrating thing I keep coming back to is that another year of Tom Brady's prime has passed. The quarterback is taking some heat today, having lost his last three postseason starts and looking somewhere between frustrated and resigned to defeat at times yesterday, and some of the criticism is justified. But I hope perspective is within reach for most fans today. He's a historically great player who has a historically great year, and despite the disappointing ending and his subpar-by-his-standards 299-yard passing performance, there's no one we should rather have leading this team.
10. As for today's Completely Random Football Card:
Sure, Rex is having a nice run. But for my money, Rich Kotite remains the premier coach in Jets history, though I wouldn't argue with Bruce Coslet or Khaki Pete. Now those were the days.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.