FOXBOROUGH -- Most of the season for the Patriots youth was served. Yesterday, the Patriots' youth got served by the Jets.
That's why it's NFL nuclear winter in New England today after an unthinkable and unbearable 28-21 home playoff loss to the Jets.
The focus in the Patriots postmortem will be on the failed fake punt and a fruitless fourth quarter drive that took longer to play out than the last "Lord of the Rings" movie. Those were contributing factors in the Patriots' demise. However, the primary cause of postseason death was a lack of experience, especially on defense. That unit used only four players yesterday who have won a playoff game in a New England uniform -- Vince Wilfork, James Sanders, Tully Banta-Cain and Brandon Meriweather.
The Patriots had 16 players making their playoff debut, and half of their combined 22 offensive and defensive starters were making their first career playoff start. That's a serious lack of playoff mettle -- or medal.
You hate to say there is anything remotely accurate to the gloating chatter from the Jets, but braggart linebacker Bart Scott was right when he said the Jets looked at their roster and at the Patriots roster and it was clear that the playoff stripes were with the guys in green and white.
"That’s what we leaned on," said Scott. "We leaned on the fact that we knew we had more playoff experience than that team. We knew that when the pressure was on those young guys wouldn’t be able to perform at a high level."
For all the talk about the green quarterback the Jets had, it was (On The) Mark Sanchez who rose to the occasion while the defense he was facing showed its age.
There is a tendency to just lump Patriots teams from the last 10 years together like it's all the same formula from 2001 until now because you have the same incomparable coach, Bill Belichick, and canonized quarterback, Tom Brady. The reality is the ingredients have changed.
The Patriots of Tedy Bruschi, Ty Law, Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour and Rodney Harrison reside only in NFL Films. Those teams made their name on winning games like yesterday's. When the Patriots were lifting Lombardi Trophies it wasn't all about TB12. Now, it is.
From 2001 to 2007, the Patriots allowed 28 or more points in a playoff game twice in 17 contests -- and never at home. In the last two home playoff games the Patriots have surrendered 33 and 28 points respectively.
Law, who had a famous pick-six in Super Bowl XXXVI, was in the house yesterday, his presence a reminder of just how difficult those teams will be to replicate.
"I mean that's one thing that they're always going to have to fight is the comparisons to our teams," Law told the Globe. "But they're going to have to find their own identity and they will. You still got a great head coach, the best that's out there, in Bill Belichick. You got the greatest quarterback in the game in Tom Brady. So you have enough pieces there to build your own identity around some of the pieces that have the experience and helped us do what we did as a team. They'll be just fine."
Eventually, yes. Yesterday, no. This iteration of the Patriots still has to prove it can win the big one. Linebacker Jerod Mayo is a model Patriot and a worthy Pro Bowler, but he has yet to win a playoff game.
As great as Brady is, playoff football is still about defense. It's about making timely stops at crucial moments or generating momentum-turning plays, something Law's Patriots excelled at. It's a trait the precocious Patriots' defense showed all season long, with an eye-popping 38 turnovers, but it didn't translate to the playoffs.
The most crucial exchange in the game came after Brady and Co., cut the Jets lead to 14-11 with 13 seconds left in the third quarter. This was the time for the New England defense to make the mistake-prone Sanchez, who had turned the ball over eight times in his two previous trips to Foxborough, squirm, to prove that their 30th-ranked pass defense was a mirage, to silence their detractors.
Instead, it took all of five plays for the Jets to go 75 yards and get the touchdown back, with Sanchez completing all four of his passes attempts, including the final one to Santonio Holmes for a 7-yard touchdown.
As much as getting B-E-A-T by the J-E-T-S when it mattered most hurts, there is some perspective that needs to be applied to this season. Youth is a double-edged sword and while it created heartbreak yesterday it also fosters promise for the future.
This was not supposed to be a Super Bowl-or-bust season in Fort Foxborough. Who among us really expected this team to go 14-2 and earn the AFC's top seed?
The defense is going to get some veteran reinforcements with the return of injured defensive end Ty Warren and injured cornerback Leigh Bodden, both of whom missed the entire season. Rookie cornerback Devin McCourty is a Pro Bowler and he's only going to get better. You would expect the same of Patrick Chung and Brandon Spikes.
Plus, the Patriots are armed with three of the top 33 picks in this year's draft and have two picks in each of the first three rounds. That's enough ammunition for Belichick to go get the impact pass rusher this team desperately needs and make additional upgrades to the front seven.
The youthful defense grew up a lot this season, but they still have a ways to go.
"They'll come back," said Law. "They're a young team, but when you get this far with the type of youth you have on this team the sky is the limit. I look forward to them being back in this same position next year, but doing a lot better."
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.