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Finding it hard to do without

What do we do now?

It's odd to have all this time on our hands. The NFL's postseason tournament is in full flower, but Gillette Stadium is dark. So strange.

Admit it: It just wasn't the same watching the Steelers and Colts yesterday. There was no rooting interest, no wonderful realization that the Steelers' upset win was going to bring the AFC Championship game back to the Razor next weekend.

One thing is for sure: The Patriots' sudden, stunning defeat in Denver Saturday night is not a good thing for Mike O'Connell and the Bruins. While Tom Brady and Friends were bound for Super Bowl XL in Detroit, it was easy to ignore the train wreck on Causeway Street, but now the moribund Bruins and the southbound Celtics have our attention again -- at a time when they'd rather be hiding in the weeds.

Meanwhile, what do we tell our sports-crazed kids? A young generation of New England football fans grew up hopelessly spoiled and just learned for the first time that Brady does not win every playoff game. Think about it: If you came of age as a Patriot fan sometime after the turn of the century, you grew up in a world where the Patriots always won in the playoffs.

The Globe is sensitive to such needs and as a community service this week we'll offer one of those cheesy stories, peppered with quotes from local psychotherapists, instructing parents on how they should talk to their football-crazed 12-year-old sons and daughters who've never seen the Patriots lose a game in January or February.

I know a little bit about this because I became a pro basketball fan when I was 6 years old in 1959 and it wasn't until my freshman year of high school that I realized the Celtics do not automatically win the NBA Championship every year. It was a springtime thing: Lilacs blossomed in front of our house, we gave up chocolate for Lent, and Red Auerbach lit a cigar to celebrate another championship.

And so it was with the Patriots. We thought they'd never lose. Ten times they played postseason games and 10 times they won. Indoors, outdoors, in the snow, late at night, and early in the afternoon. Assorted Raiders, Steelers, Rams, Titans, Colts, Panthers, Eagles, and Jaguars were chewed up, spit out, and sent home to a dark winter. The Patriots had the best owner, the best coaches, the best players, and seemed to get all the breaks. They never took the apple. They would beat you with brains, brawn, or maybe just the golden toe of Adam Vinatieri.

That's why it was so strange to see it all unravel at Invesco Field at Mile High Saturday night. Things got off to a slow start and Denver's stunting defense seemed to have Brady off his game in the first half. Still, late in the half the Patriots led, 3-0, before coughing up a pair of fumbles and 10 points after the two-minute warning.

But in Bill Belichick We Trust and it was pretty clear at the start of the third quarter that New England had solved the Denver defense. The Patriots rolled down the field on their first two possessions. They got all the way to the Broncos' 14-yard line before settling for a field goal on the first drive. Then they stormed to the Denver 5. And we knew everything was OK. This game, like all those others, was in the bag.

But then we were sucked into some wormhole that transported us to an alternate universe -- a place where the normal laws of average have a hold on athletic competition. Suddenly, the Patriots were vulnerable to the mistakes and bad luck that visit every team in every sport. Just when he was set to put the Patriots in the end zone, and give New England a 13-10 lead in the final minute of the third quarter, Brady rushed a pass toward the right corner of the end zone. Champ Bailey stepped in front of Troy Brown, intercepted the pass, and ran 100 yards down the left sideline before Benjamin Watson unloaded a case of whoop-ass on the cornerback at the 1-yard line.

Watson's infinite hustle and explosive blind-side hit stands as the best moment of the night for the Patriots. It speaks to an attitude and work ethic that delivered three Super Bowls to New England. But, ultimately, it did not prevent a touchdown or a loss.

In the old days, Walt Coleman would have upheld New England's challenge and ruled that Bailey fumbled the ball into (and out of) the end zone. The Patriots would have been awarded the ball at the 20 and marched right back down the field to take the lead.

But the old days are gone. Instead of a fortunate reversal, Denver running back Mike Anderson walked into the end zone to make it 17-6 and then came the unthinkable: Vinatieri missed a 43-yard field goal. It's a significant distance for any NFL kicker, but seeing Vinatieri miss any kick in a playoff game was the final sign. It was Pavarotti coughing in the middle of the Ave Maria.

So that's it. No more blood and thunder playoff football for New England this winter. The tournament goes on without the Patriots. Gillette is dark and quiet and we wonder what we'll talk about between now and the start of spring training.

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