Not enough -- but they gave plenty
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - OK, 11-5 wasn't enough, but after what the New England Patriots did this season, and especially in the final month, there is no reason for anyone to respect and/or love this team one iota less than if it had gone 16-0.
Never forget what happened to Tom Brady in Week 1. Never forget that this team was 7-5 with absolutely no margin for error in December. The Patriots needed help from either the Jets or Jaguars yesterday, and they did not get it. No one was counting on the Jaguars beating the Ravens, but if anyone in New England needed another reason to hate the Jets, they have it now. All the Jets had to do was win a game at home they desperately needed. What consummate oinkers.
This leaves the Patriots as the first team in the 12-team playoff era to go 11-5 and not make the playoffs. They will not whine, and you should not complain.
Winning is, in fact, not the only thing. All a team owes its constituency is a thoroughly professional approach to its affairs. A team that plays with competence and heart is, by definition, rootable, and thus the 2008 New England Patriots are, by definition, near the top of any list of rootable Patriots teams.
It will always be high on coach Bill Belichick's list, I can promise you that.
"I'm really proud of our team," Belichick said in the immediate aftermath of a 13-0 triumph over the Bills. "Going 11-5, winning the last four, three on the road. I'm really proud of the way they played in difficult conditions, to say the least. I know it was the same for both teams, but I'm just saying it was very difficult for the skill people to handle the ball."
There is wind and there is W-I-N-D, WIND! What we had at Ralph Wilson Stadium yesterday morning and afternoon was WIND!
At game time the wind was coming from the southwest at 30-40 miles per hour, with gusts in excess of 50. And that was down from the morning blast that tore part of the roof off the nearby fieldhouse, sent the heated benches all over the playing field, and forced the goal posts to tilt severely.
It is not often, for example, that you go to a football game and hear the referee, in this case Gene Steratore, say before a Stephen Gostkowski 26-yard field goal attempt, "We will have a temporary delay in order to fix the goal post," which, at the time, was listing, not for the first time, severely to the right.
That was a fine gesture, but it would not have made a difference had the goal posts been placed on the ground. The kick into the mini gale started out straight and true, but a little more than halfway toward its destination it took a severe right turn, sailing far outside the post.
Into the wind, with the wind, it really didn't matter. Buffalo's Rian Lindell tried a 47-yarder with the wind that had plenty of leg but was blown off course to the right, landing somewhere near Utica.
"That was amazing," said Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel. "That poor guy from Buffalo. That looked like something I'd hit off the tee."
In such conditions, passing was a secondary concern, but it did play a role, and though the Bills had better passing stats, Matt Cassel made the most of his 6-for-8, 78-yard, no TD, no INT afternoon. According to his coach - and I think you'd agree that his coach has a right to an opinion on this matter - his QB made some positively exquisite throws in a sensational display of all-around bad-weather quarterbacking.
"I thought Cassel made a lot of great decisions today," Belichick said. "To throw it, to run it . . . he put the ball, at times, in only places it could be caught. On the curl pattern to Randy Moss [a 13-yard reception on the drive leading to the final field goal], right on his chest. On the pass to [Wes] Welker down on the 1-yard line on the option route on fourth down [a 12-yard pass/run on fourth and 5 at the Buffalo 14, so the ball was actually placed on the 2], he put the ball right on him, the only place it could be."
Cassel also made clutch plays with his legs. It was a tremendous exclamation point on a transcendent year from a guy who - maybe you heard something about this - had not started a game since high school until Brady went down.
"To manage a game like he did today," marveled Vrabel. "There are a lot of teams in this league who would like to have Matt Cassel at quarterback."
The Wesleyan guy outcoached the Yale guy. Check that: the Wesleyan guy embarrassed the Yale guy. Dick Jauron is a gentleman's gentleman, which means he has no chance against the Bloodless Sage. While Jauron was totally mismanaging the clock at the end of the first half, when the scoreboard laughably suggested this was still a game (3-0), Belichick had college and high school coaches all over America taking notes. It was an absolute tutorial.
He bamboozled Jauron into wasting what could conceivably have been a valuable timeout by pretending he was going for a fourth and forever (12, actually) from his 18 at the start of the second half. He twice kicked on third down, including an artful Cassel 57-yard quick kick that rolled and rolled until it came to rest at the Buffalo 2.
Oh, and did Belichick tell his players to stir up some fuss as the clock was running out at the end of the half? What do you think? And was Jauron able to reference the 1986 NFC Championship Game as a rationale to take the wind in the first quarter? Nope, it was Coach Bill.
Yes, and which team was more physically and mentally prepared to play in the Oakland rain, the Foxborough snow, and the Orchard Park wind? Take a guess.
"I think Coach did a great job all year long of preparing us for the elements," said running back LaMont Jordan, who made artful cuts all day long. "We have a [practice] bubble, and it's been 30 degrees and raining and snowing, but Coach knows that we have to play in those elements, and he had us practicing in them. The past four weeks we were able to come out here and win big games."
As always, we'd pay serious money to know just what Belichick and his staff talk about behind those closed doors, about whether they honestly thought Cassel could get the job done to this extent after No. 12 went down, or how badly they regret not having Asante Samuel, or if they thought they could survive without Rodney Harrison. And imagine how desperate they were at linebacker to resurrect Rosevelt Colvin and Junior "The Beachcomber" Seau. I bet they had some great conversations.
What we do know is that, as always, Belichick and his guys made the absolute most of what they had. They were reeling after that Pittsburgh loss, but they simply went back to work, and you can see what they were able to accomplish.
It would be masochistic to dwell on the key plays that weren't made this season, but it's better to focus on the plays that actually were, and they were plentiful. Remember, they lost Brady. They lost Laurence Maroney. They lost Harrison. They lost Adalius Thomas. They lost Tedy Bruschi.
And they went 11-5.
The Patriots' first Super Bowl champs were also 11-5. Did you know that?
They're the Best Team Ever To Miss The Playoffs. Coach Bill stopped short of saying he "loved" this team. You don't have to.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.