- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
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As an epitaph, the sight of Baltimore Ravens players waving goodbye to a disappointed-turned-resigned Patriots fan base skulking en masse toward the cold exits was appropriate for an afternoon that in many ways closed the chapter of the most successful period of professional football the New England region has ever known.
This was the season in which fear finally turned to reality. The fear that the New England Patriots were no longer invincible, or even elite, grew clear over the weeks and months of the season, culminating in a resounding 33-14 playoff loss Sunday that shattered a team's once-concrete sense of self, erased any positives of the season, left hard questions and didn't leave much to look forward to.
The nagging fear that the universe had shifted after that loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLIII became real; the notion that Tom Brady's knee would just heal, and the bitter taste of losing the perfect season and the championship on the same day would just ebb, and the dynasty would just pick up and crank forward turned out to be pure fantasy.
The fears that the talent drain on the offense and defense could not simply be masked by the defensive schemes of the coach came true during a season in which the offense could be stymied as it focused on only two players and the defense was not as tough, or as gifted, as it has been and could be pushed around.
And perhaps the biggest fear, that the chemistry combined with winning that made the Patriots so formidable in the first place has been compromised, is now obvious. If defensive veterans always chafed under Bill Belichick, this season, the chafing did not translate to victories. Richard Seymour was traded. Vince Wilfork says he does not want to be franchised, Shawn Springs and Adalius Thomas believe they were misused, while Belichick believed in schemes he did not have the players to utilize. The coach lost the confidence of important players this season and did not receive the kind of performances required to assuage hard feelings on both sides.
Life moves too quickly in sports for that clean a resolution. Teams get better and attitudes change, while hunger, like talent and enthusiasm, waxes and wanes. These aren't chess pieces, after all. The fears all culminated in one place: The Patriots' run is over, having survived during the 2009 season on the fumes of memory and respect for past accomplishments. But when it came time to fight hard against a tough, fearless opponent, nostalgia could not save them.
The clues had been present for months, suppressed by the possibility of a sudden and deep playoff run (a win and then an upset in San Diego, maybe?), fortified by reputation: These are still the Patriots. That was always the trump card they held in their back pocket, that the old dynasty could use the old skills to make an opponent blink. It was a belief that survived even though over the past two seasons, the Patriots have twice as many losses against playoff teams as wins and produced just two (two!) 100-yard rushing games all season, and opponents -- the Jets, the Panthers and now the Ravens -- have ridiculed them with impunity, most famously when Panthers defensive back Chris Gamble accused Randy Moss of "quitting."
The Ravens, who jumped out to a 24-0 lead on Sunday, showed that reputation is in need of serious repair.
The Ravens shattered the bedrock, the kind of natural foundation that can withstand earthquakes. Tom Brady was 8-0 at home in the postseason for his career, beginning with the blessed Snow Game against the Raiders that started it all, but couldn't escape constant pressure. There would be no miracles.
The Patriots hadn't lost a home playoff game since 1978, when the Oilers destroyed them after Chuck Fairbanks had abandoned them.
The tough-minded Patriots, who won their first Super Bowl by hitting the St. Louis Rams into submission, were meek on Sunday, pounded on both sides of the ball, allowing the Ravens to score three touchdowns with their runners virtually untouched.
Brady, the golden hero, ran for his life from the opening snap. Ray Lewis crunched him for a sack, sending the message that the Patriots were in for a fight against an opponent that believed it could win.
With the exception of Kevin Faulk and the kid Julian Edelman, the Patriots reached the point of resignation that they just weren't up to it. They didn't run tough or block tough or fight hard. The fight was taken to them for the entire game.
Each moment revealed a larger crack in the foundation, from Edelman getting buried on his first reception (for a loss), underscoring the Patriots' inability to diversify an offense that scored points but was largely predictable.
Moss, smothered by a brilliant Baltimore defensive scheme, was taken out of the game and without much adjustment by his coaches.
The defense, a work in progress all season, was buried at the point of attack, leaving one to wonder how the Patriots expected to compete this season with a defense designed for Seymour, without having Seymour on the team.
In short, the vaunted Patriots had no answers and, for the first time under Belichick, were embarrassed in a playoff game.
"The era is over," Ravens wide receiver -- and former Patriot -- Kelley Washington yelled to fans sarcastically in the final minutes Sunday, unearthing another element to the Patriots' saga: the curious delight teams seem to derive from taking them down. Perhaps part of it is professional respect, that to be the best you have to beat the best. Part of it is karma, where the Patriots have enemies that don't mind seeing them lose. One cannot envision victorious rival players rubbing it in the faces of Tony Dungy or the late Bill Walsh. The New Englanders are embittered to hear it, but there exists an undercurrent of animus toward this franchise because of the dreaded Spygate, that if nothing else, Belichick and his team profited from information unethically obtained, and one day, comeuppance would await them.
Every team must go through this. A night earlier, the Philadelphia Eagles, another team that had enjoyed a solid run -- though far less successful than the Patriots' -- collapsed and crumbled in Dallas, the losing secondary to the way they lost: utterly manhandled, overmatched, outclassed. The Eagles seemed fatigued, as teams that stay together too long often look, awoken only by an embarrassing loss.
Perhaps it was merely a bad day at the office. That happens, too. Even the San Francisco 49ers, in the middle of their dynasty, were blasted in the postseason, once 49-3 by the New York Giants. What happened on Sunday had little to do with the score as much as the mounting evidence that this year's team may have contained big names, but was perhaps Belichick's weakest overall club, trending in the wrong direction.
Nevertheless, it was, as they say, a hell of a run. Three Super Bowl titles, the complete transformation of a once-moribund franchise and most importantly, the establishment of a championship standard never expected by anyone associated with professional football in New England. All is not lost. The Ravens dropped the gauntlet on Sunday, pushed the Patriots off the perch and then took a sledgehammer to the pedestal. These are facts. The question is, moving forward, what the New England Patriots intend to do about it.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball and The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, to be published May 2010. He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter.
1dEric D. Williams