Patriots

Parting thoughts on a Patriots season that fell incomplete

Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady and the Patriots are left to wonder what could have been.

COMMENTARY

The abruptness of the ending – or, as Bill Belichick put it Monday morning, the “crash-landing to the end of the season, like it usually is in the National Football League’’ – doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for immediate context. The deconstruction comes later, once the shock wears off and acceptance settles in. That’s when reasonable thoughts and conclusions can be salvaged from among the scattered debris.

Maybe a consensus of disappointed Patriots fans isn’t ready to be reasonable now. I understand if that’s the case. Hell, I’m not sure I am, either. Winning is good for business, and in the interest of seeing a small man with a swollen ego receive his public comeuppance, I wanted Roger Goodell to have to hand over that Lombardi Trophy to the Patriots’ brain trust. (Not that he would have; you know he’d have had a minion do it). I wanted to see Brady’s ultimate redemption, even if he never should have required redemption in the first place.

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Instead, the Redemption Tour ended a date short of the scheduled final show, and all we have for the moment are the memories and what-ifs echoing through winter’s empty stadium. It’ll get better again before it begins again in September. But for now, here’s my best attempt, still hours after the crash, to look through clear eyes at what happened.

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Belichick has made some strange – or at least unexpected – decisions in recent weeks. I still don’t know what they were trying to do in the Miami game, or why Brady played for that matter. And it was strange/unexpected that the Patriots took the ball to start the game Sunday given that they have traditionally favored kicking off and getting the ball to start the second half. Belichick doesn’t seem particularly interested in explaining his reasoning. The only logical conclusion I can draw is that they didn’t think Denver — more specifically Peyton Manning — would be able to play from behind.

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Second-guess that one if you want. I’ll hear your case. But I’m not particularly interested in playing the hindsight game regarding the Patriots’ decision to go for it on fourth down twice in field goal range late in the game, once with 6 minutes and 3 seconds remaining down eight (20-12) and again with 2:25 left and the same score.

Yes, in the end, those three-pointers, presuming Stephen Gostkowski buried them, would have been helpful. Maybe even the difference in the game. But there was no guarantee the Patriots would have another chance for a touchdown, at least from relatively close-range. They struggled to move the ball for much of the day. Their only TD at that point had come on a short field after the Patriots recovered what was ruled a fumble on a backward pass at the Denver 22.

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In retrospect, and with the faulty presumption that everything that came later in the game would have played out the same, they should have taken the points, sure. But at the time – both times – it was a reasonable decision.

To put it another way: Imagine how much second-guessing would be thrown Belichick’s way had the Patriots taken the 3 points and never gotten the ball back.

* * *

I don’t know that I recognized it as it was unfolding. I certainly didn’t consider it to be the case in the first half. But in the immediate aftermath, I believe it to be true: That was one of the best performances of Rob Gronkowski’s career.

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He was double-teamed all day, barely had time to run his routes because Brady was under siege, dealt with cramps (he had to sit out during an abbreviated second-half drive), dealt with the specter of cheap-shot specialist T.J. Ward hovering around all day … and still managed eight receptions for 144 yards, including a spectacular catch on fourth-and-10 on the Patriots’ final drive and a touchdown with 12 seconds remaining that pulled the Patriots within two points.

I don’t care how many receptions Tony Gonzalez made or how many touchdowns Kellen Winslow Sr. scored. Six seasons into his career, Gronkowski is the greatest tight end the game has ever seen. It was never more evident than Sunday.

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Interesting thought here:

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I wondered the same thing yesterday as Brady continually peeled himself off the turf. If Solder hadn’t torn his biceps in Week 5 against Dallas, he’d be at left tackle, Sebastian Vollmer would be at right tackle, and Marcus Cannon wouldn’t be getting publically humiliated in front of 53 million television viewers every time Tom Brady said hike. I’m not ready to say it was the most damaging injury – the Patriots win that game with a healthy Dion Lewis Sunday, and the offense was never at full acceleration again after Julian Edelman’s foot injury.

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But the absence of Solder hurt in the end more than we expected, probably because the Patriots pieced together a cohesive line last year after early chaos (remember Jordan Devey?) and we just assumed it would happen again.

* * *

I loved that Belichick said – and said adamantly – that the malfunctioning tablets during the game didn’t matter at all. “They didn’t affect the outcome. I mean, no way,’’ he said Monday. That’s an excuse a lot of coaches wouldn’t have been able to resist using. I bet Mike Tomlin already has it written down for next year … Bryan Stork emerged as the fulcrum of the Patriots’ line last year, his rookie season. After his shaky sophomore season, I’m not sure what to expect going forward. He took a meatheaded headbutting penalty Sunday, and his struggles with the snap allowed the Broncos rushers to get a half-step toward Brady that they probably didn’t even need. He missed a good chunk of the season with a concussion, and in some sense he deserves a mulligan, just as Brandon LaFell does for playing through a foot injury. Neither of them were ever quite right. But it’s hard to know what to expect next year, either … Ryan Allen’s stats were OK – he averaged 46.8 yards and a 43.3 net on six punts – but he put only one inside the Denver 20, while Broncos punter Britton Colquitt put four of his nine punts inside the 20. The Patriots could have used a little more help in the field-position battle from their punter, one of those Luke Prestridge-style 70-yard bombs. But it never happened … Yep, that’s what it’s come to – we’re punter-shaming now. Seems like a good time to fold up the chairs and close the doors on the season, leaving behind this one reminder of the short distance between delight and despair to get you through until next fall.

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These are the good old days. They remain the good old days. Even if Sunday was one of the bummers among them.

Photos: AFC Championship Game scenes

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