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Thoughts on a team, and the bloody game it plays

The Patriots just weren’t that good this season. It’s that simple! Everyone with a column, a blog, a microphone, a bandstand, a place on Facebook, even a quill pen, has been insisting as much with varying degrees of vehemence since last July. 

While certain oddsmakers, who must have been in the bag, were calling them favorites for their late and fatal appointment in Denver, those who know them best were predicting they’d lose. And so they did.

So where is the issue? It has to do with the myth that the estimable if ultimately inscrutable football sorcerer Bill Belichick and his prized apprentice, Master Tom Brady, have woven the length of this new millennium.

Deep in the psyche of this team’s ardent following – and equally deep in the fears of those who detest them as well – persists the conviction that the firm of Belichick and Brady will usually and somehow “find a way.” That they had dramatically done so in increasingly improbable fashion a bunch of times in this this past regular season reinforced this assumption; and with many, it had become precisely that, a mere assumption, and they are always shaky. Moreover, what they achieved, at least this season, was largely with smoke and mirrors at the expense of foes who eventually proved fraudulent. The assumption, thereby, was shakier than ever.

Still, it was a notion, however fragile, that the Patriots faithful had clung to. It’s strange how such mossy myth remained so firmly held when you consider it’s now officially a full decade since Brothers B & B last led our Foxborough pets to football’s Promised Land.

Actually, this myth has been more a memory since Eli Manning cleaned their clocks in their last two failed Super Bowl dates. And now they have come up woefully short in consecutive conference finals. Might it by time to acknowledge the party is officially over? Let’s put it another way. If you go a full decade between Super Bowl triumphs in the National Football League you no longer qualify as an aspiring dynasty.

Many are insisting that injuries killed them this season and will go on insisting that such tough luck made all the difference. To his credit, Belichick knows better and defiantly refuses to use this crutch; always has. His players, smartly picking up the proper cues, have steadfastly disdained such whining as well. ‘Tis wise, although an adoring media, no doubt hoping to curry favor with Boss Belichick (not an easy fellow), continue to harp on this point.

Would this year’s team not have been better had Messrs. Gronkowski, Wilfork, Kelly, Mayo, Solder, Spikes, et al. and ad nauseam, remained healthy, or if their explosive secret weapon, hell on wheels, all-purpose tight end Aaron Hernandez had not turned out to be an accused serial-homicide felon and celebrity jailbird along the way? Indeed, might they have fared better in the finale if Aqib Talib, their best defensive back, had not been ambushed early on by Wes Welker, an old friend? Why of course; no one would deny any of that!

But then, would not the Broncos have been even tougher foes in the end had they also not lost a platoon of stalwarts over the course of their season, including for starters, all-pro corner Chris Harris, the QB of their defense, linebacker Von Miller, an all-pro offensive lineman, two veteran defensive linemen, and their strong safety. You better believe that too, old Sport. In the end, both teams were playing on fumes.

Injuries are everywhere in this bloody atavistic tong war of an alleged “game” now featured in the rather heartless multi-billion dollar cartel called the NFL. Everyone has them. This season, 10 quarterbacks were carried off on their shields and 41 other luckless troupers suffered season-ending knee injuries while the total of those who landed on the weekly disabled list shattered the old record – which happens pretty much every year nowadays – and all of that was before the playoffs began.

Writes Frank Bruni on the OpEd page of the New York Times in a column headlined Football’s Devastating Harvest: “It’s difficult to say definitively whether significant injuries over all are on the rise, and it doesn’t matter. They’re too prevalent. Period!”

This entire NFL season that is now about to come crashing to an end has been all about injury and pain and suffering and attrition and triage. It’s an entirely unpleasant issue that has profoundly dominated the entire season. A slush fund of roughly a billion bucks aimed at salving the wounds of aching NFL alumni and set up before the season began is already deemed insufficient as said season ends. In every tilt along the way, doctors have been perched on the sidelines yanking players off the field to have their heads scanned after they have gotten their bells rung. Everyone who plays this game plays hurt and keeps his mouth shut.

It’s just a way of life in this brave new football world where injuries are the great equalizer. No one has the right to use them as an excuse. It is a Darwinian game!

And on this occasion, the very fittest of the fit rather obviously were the Broncos. So they survived. It’s just that simple.

Actually, this Patriots season was foredoomed when the mind-boggling Aaron Hernandez fiasco broke – or is the proper term for it “exploded?” – way back last June. It would have been embarrassing for them to have gone on further and believe me, if they had miraculously managed to reach Holy Soupey Week, the wretched Hernandez business would have been all the rage and the big game’s big sub-plot.

In the days leading up to the Denver showdown, Boston police were weighing new charges having to do with old capital crimes against the Pats’ erstwhile superstar tight end whom the ownership regarded so highly as to confer on him a $40 million contract little more than a year ago. There’s no end in sight to this dreadful mess. Hernandez is evolving into the Patriots’ lasting disgrace, one they indisputably enabled. Any effort by Owner Kraft and/or Coach Belichick, et al. and ad nauseam, to wipe their hands of any blame in this extraordinary outrage or dismiss it with some mumbo jumbo about having been “duped” is pathetic.

On the more familiar level of the mere stuff that happens on the football field itself, that last wild fling in Denver leaves us with a number of interesting questions:

• Granted this game wasn’t as close as the final score of 26-16 suggests, how great is the true difference between the two?
• How did Jack Del Rio, the Denver defensive coordinator who was considered the lightweight of the Bronco’s brain trust, come up with a scheme that so out-witted and befuddled the fabled Coach Belichick?
• What became of LeGarrette Blount, who looked like the second coming of Jim Brown one week and gained six yards the next?
• How does the willingness to replace Welker with Amendola look now?
• The injury factor notwithstanding, how does the Pats “D” explain having not laid a hand on Peyton Manning for an entire game?
• And what of the incomparable Brady, who had, all things considered, his worst moment of an illustrious career. Is he closer to the end of the line than we want to realize?

In this last observation, one admits to having veered into devil’s advocate territory. Any artist in any dodge, no matter how great, has a right to a terrible day, which is what Sir Tom clearly had. With his level of stardom, however, come ridiculous standards and obligations. As he reaches age 37 how can we expect, let alone demand, still more?
So you are left to wonder: Might this be how it ends for the Patriots precisely 13 fairly golden years after the epic Belichick-Brady era began?  Do we have a right to expect more?

In the meantime, you can be excused to root for Peyton to go all the way. And why not?