Commentary

Can Patriots bounce back?

Their response to crushing defeat will tell tale of season

Updated: November 17, 2009, 6:15 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Veteran running back Kevin Faulk left all he had on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday night, performing admirably in the Patriots' stunning 35-34 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

Fighting back his frustration amid reporters in a solemn postgame locker room, Faulk came close to reaching a boiling point when asked how long it would take to get over such a devastating loss. His voice rising, he said: "I have four letters for you: J-E-T-S."

On the surface, it was the correct answer, what coach Bill Belichick would want to hear. That's how fast players have to turn the page in the NFL, moving on to the next opponent (the Patriots host the Jets on Sunday afternoon) with a short memory in regard to what happened the week before.

Yet what Faulk said didn't necessarily match his expression, the agony on his face evident to those crowded around him, the hurt from having given so much but coming away without a victory as powerful as any words he could have spoken.

The visual of the pained Faulk, in his red hooded sweatshirt, reflected the general mood of most of the 53 men who constitute the Patriots' locker room. If you compare Sunday night's game to a boxing match, the Patriots played the role of the fighter controlling the first 11 rounds and holding the advantage on every judge's scorecard before losing the only way possible, by a final-round knockout.

Now it's about getting up off the mat.

Belichick gave the players Monday and Tuesday off, and when they return Wednesday, the test will be in putting this difficult loss behind them. Belichick is as demanding as they come, but this might be a week to lessen the whip cracking and instead focus on some morale building.

That shouldn't be too hard because, listening closely to Belichick after the game and again on Monday, it's clear that there were things he liked Sunday night. The Patriots, who remain in control of the AFC East, looked like an elite team through 55 minutes before the storyline turned sharply, in part because of some uncharacteristic game-management breakdowns by the coaching staff.

As for what the loss means for the Patriots (6-3) in the long run, a No. 1 playoff seeding in the AFC for New England is extremely unlikely now. The Colts (9-0) are already three games up on them and own the head-to-head tiebreaker, which quarterback Tom Brady acknowledged last week would be too large of a gap to close with seven games remaining. Yet that isn't necessarily a fatal blow based on recent history.

The more damaging blow could be to the Patriots' collective psyche in the coming weeks, as well as in a couple of months if they face the Colts and Peyton Manning in the postseason. That likely would mean another trip to Indianapolis, which has become a house of horrors for Belichick, just as Foxborough was to Manning earlier this decade.

The Colts now have the upper hand in the rivalry, the result of three stunning wins over the Patriots in their last four meetings. In each on the three games, the Patriots were victimized by a sudden turn.

"It's tough," receiver Wes Welker said. "You go out there and play really well. You've got the game. The way it flipped like that, it's bad on our part."

After the game, players were still absorbing the suddenness of how the result turned, the locker room scene somewhat resembling that of the aftermath of Super Bowl XLII. It took some time for the sting of that championship defeat to pass, but the Patriots don't have the luxury -- or curse -- of time after this one.

They are a shaken team, but one still in prime position. How they respond will define their season.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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