It almost feels as if it flashed past, the Patriots' dynasty. These things go by so quickly -- one reason why the word is often so comically misapplied in sports situations. Doesn't a dynasty last longer than this?
There's no joy in the discovery, really. There is a sort of shock to the system. The Pats were beaten by the Jets on their home field in Foxborough, Mass., on Sunday night -- genuinely beaten, absolutely, no doubt about that -- and thus sent with a sudden jolt into their offseason. And some of the bigger-picture questions feel unavoidable.
Are the Patriots the team that sliced through the NFL's regular-season schedule with a 14-2 record, or the team that lost two of its three games to the Jets?
Is Tom Brady the quarterback of a remade-on-the-fly roster that nevertheless rolled opponents with enough gusto to be installed as Super Bowl favorites, or is he the quarterback of a franchise that last won the NFL championship six years ago?
Are the Pats great? Or are they over?
The answer, of course, is yes -- yes to both sides of every coin. Yes to all. New England really did pile up 14 victories; it did so with a radically realigned cast that skewed younger; Brady finished the regular season with an astounding 36-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. That's all real.
But so is the long view, and the long view is the one that is concerned with teams' places in history, standing among the elites, and all that rot. On that basis, there's really no choice but to conclude that the Patriots' dynasty, as it was thought of, is done.
Still competitive? Oh, without a doubt. Nobody goes 14-2 in the NFL by accident. But "dynasty" equals titles. Dynastic teams win it all. And that is as hard as hell to do.
Ask Pittsburgh. Ask Dallas. Ask San Francisco. It goes by in a blur, the "era" does.
It is astonishing to consider that, at age 33, with a significant knee repair already a couple of seasons in his rearview mirror, Tom Brady is actually closer to the end of his career than the beginning. What'd that take, about five minutes? Brady was the precocious kid with the Super Bowl MVP tucked under his arm two eyeblinks ago.
But both Brady and the rest of the Patriots looked like the slower team on the field against the Jets -- the division and conference rival Jets. Anything connected with Rex Ryan feels like it could implode without notice, of course, but it's hard to look at that New York roster without speculating that the Jets could be awfully good for an awfully long time. And where does that leave Brady, Belichick & Co.?
It was the strangest thing, watching New England plod its way down the field in the late stages of that game Sunday, walking up to the line of scrimmage, using almost all of the play clock -- just unbelievably casual in an elimination game. Belichick later suggested that in a two-score situation, the Pats were willing to sacrifice some clock time in order to nail down the points, but the look was unmistakably bad. And it looked worse when, in those final moments, Brady and his teammates finally executed a nearly perfect no-huddle possession to get their last touchdown.
Brady clearly still has a lot of game left in him -- great game. For that matter, the Patriots have six picks stockpiled in the first three rounds of April's NFL draft. It is easy to imagine a scenario in which New England finds a way to shore up its lack of quarterback pressure defensively and its inability to stretch the field vertically on offense, rides the glory of the Hoodie's game plans and Brady's passing touch, and returns to dominant form.
But it's gettin' tougher out there. The possibility of a lockout is lousy news for an on-the-clock veteran like Brady, especially if it somehow goes nuclear and wipes out a season. (Surely no one connected with the pro game is myopic enough to allow that to happen.) The promise of young, newly drafted talent is grounded in the reality that it takes time for NFL players to learn the game. The Jets are for real. And we haven't discussed Pittsburgh or Baltimore or any of the other teams that conspire annually to prevent a dynasty from happening.
For all the hyperbole directed Belichick's way over the years, New England is 0-2 in the postseason over the past three years; and perhaps its finest overall campaign, the 16-0 regular season of 2007, will be recalled for the Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants. These past two playoff seasons have resulted in one-and-done defeats at home. It is remarkably difficult to keep a winning roster together, and every "system" in the NFL is constantly at the mercy of the quality of the players who are running it.
Coaches facilitate winning; players win. It's a talent league, and putting enough talent together on the same team at the same time to win it all is almost a shooting-star proposition these days. Belichick and Brady won three Super Bowls in four years in the early 2000s; and looking back, you realize it was pretty close to miraculous.
As good as the Pats have been since then, they haven't won another title. That's a sporting dynasty for you: over in a hurry.
Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His work, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. His next book, "The Voodoo Wave," will be released in August 2011 by W.W. Norton. Reach him at email@example.com.