, Salem, MA

January 24, 2014

Our view: Pats' campaign was a tale of two seasons

The Salem News

---- — There was a wave of nausea that struck across New England on Sunday, and it wasn’t caused by the heaping helpings of nachos, chicken wings, party platters, beer and snacks that were being consumed by the thousands of pounds.

No, it was caused by the ignominious end to the New England Patriots season at the hands of the Denver Broncos. The Patriots went into the Mile High Stadium as underdogs and left with a bitter defeat on their record. A win would have brought them to the Super Bowl; instead, they ended the season in gloom, with a long shadow cast by head coach Bill Belichick’s uncharacteristic display of accusations against Broncos player Wes Welker.

It was a campaign that began under a cloud, as well, with the offseason arrest of star tight end Aaron Herndandez, who in June was charged with murder in the shooting death of Odin Lloyd, a 27-year-old semipro football player. Police are also investigating whether he was involved in a 2012 shooting in Boston that left two people dead.

In between the horrific beginning and dispirited ending, however, was arguably one of the most interesting and plucky seasons that the Patriots have given their fans. For that, at least, we are appreciative. The team and its managers continue to demonstrate the qualities of the “Patriot Way,” a successful model that has made them one of professional sports most dynamic teams.

From the very start of the year, the Patriots faced an uphill battle. The core of highly talented receivers that Tom Brady has always had was gone, and the star who remained, tight end Rob Gronkowski, was seriously injured. Worst of all — from a football standpoint — was the loss of Wes Welker, Brady’s longtime go-to guy, who left the Pats in part due to disputes with Belichick. Then came the string of injuries to key starting players, more injuries than a team could be expected to overcome. Video clips of Brady losing his cool on the sideline had the pundits predicting that the team was coming apart.

But in the Patriot Way, the team quietly rebuilt itself into something that no one expected. The precision “finesse game” that the Pats were known for was thrown out. Instead, hard-nosed running backs battered the ball up the field. Players who a year ago were virtually unknown were making names for themselves, filling in for the injured starters. National experts who had written off Brady’s Bunch were changing their tune.

The season’s high point came on Nov. 24 in an improbable come-from-behind win against the Broncos in Foxboro, with the Patriots overcoming the biggest deficit in their team history. It was won with grit, solid play and determination. This is the kind of game that is remembered for a lifetime.

As the playoff season began, the Patriots found themselves where few had really expected them to be — seeded second in their conference and contending for the Super Bowl.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Sunday’s game played out like a three-hour-long paper cut. The Patriots were never able to establish momentum and seemed helpless to turn things around. It wasn’t what we had come to expect from this scrappy, come-from-behind team. After the game, interviews with both Brady and Belichick displayed pained responses that are rarely seen from them. Perhaps it was this season’s unlikely rise from the ashes that caused them to feel a particularly acute hurt.

Their disappointment was shared by their fans, but most never expected them to get this far anyway.

It’s said that polls suggest the Pats are the most despised team in the rest of the nation’s eyes, but for us New Englanders, we wouldn’t want them to be anything different. They never give up on their fans.