FOXBOROUGH - The reality of sitting out the playoffs set in for the Patriots yesterday. Players cleaned out their lockers at Gillette Stadium, some carrying trash bags full of belongings and autographed jerseys for teammates, signing off on a season that ended sooner than expected.
For the first time since 2002, the Patriots shut down shop before New Year's Day.
"I think it's tough," said linebacker Mike Vrabel. "You try to think that it's a pretty positive ending to a season, a good finish - you finish 11-5 - and then you realize that you're cleaning your locker out. You didn't make the playoffs. You're happy the way you finished, but disappointed that you're not in the playoffs."
Having free time this time of year is a foreign feeling for a franchise that usually has a standing playoff reservation.
"It's quite different than what we've had in the past," said defensive end Richard Seymour, who sat out Sunday's season-ending 13-0 win over the Buffalo Bills with a lower back injury. "But I think it can be to our benefit coming into next year."
If there is any upside to becoming the first team since the 12-team playoff setup was introduced in 1990 and only the second ever to finish 11-5 and miss the playoffs, it's that the Patriots will have a chance to come back rested and rejuvenated in 2009.
It has been a wild ride - emotionally and physically - for the past three seasons.
In 2006, the Patriots battled all the way to the AFC title game before suffering a crushing 38-34 defeat to the Indianapolis Colts. Last season, they had to deal with the fallout from the "Spygate" signal-taping scandal and the searing spotlight of their pursuit for perfection. This season, the Patriots persevered through the loss of patron-saint passer Tom Brady in the season opener and a slew of injuries to patch together an 11-5 record, winning their final four games.
Weary coach Bill Belichick said the goal is always to play deep into the playoffs, but that having a little more time for players to bounce back from injuries and for him and his staff to evaluate the team and schemes and prepare for the draft and the start of free agency (Feb. 27) could be beneficial.
"The last two offseasons that we've had were as condensed as they could be relative to most of the other teams in the league," said Belichick. "Unfortunately, we are not playing this week, but it will give us a little bit more time to maybe do more of a thorough analysis and breakdown . . . than what we have in the past.
"I think one thing that we all need and deserve around here is a little bit of rest. I think that would include the coaching staff as well. I think that our guys around here work hard. They put in a lot of hours. They are very dedicated. I think that they could use a little break, and I think you can include me in that group."
The reason the Patriots have a little break is that they couldn't catch one Sunday. Needing either the Dolphins or the Ravens to lose to allow them into the postseason, the Patriots could only sit back and watch as Miami and Baltimore celebrated playoff berths. Seymour said that's what happens when you put yourself in a position of relying on other teams.
"It never really works out unless you're Philly. [They] needed a lot of things to happen and it all kind of worked out for them," said Seymour, referencing the Philadelphia Eagles, who got an NFC wild-card berth on the season's final day.
"The best-case scenario is when you can kind of take care of business yourself. Obviously, we played well down the stretch, but we were kind of one up, one down for most of the year. It isn't going to be good enough.
"Usually the saying is '10 and you're in.' We got past that mark and still weren't in. [It's] disappointing because I feel like we were hitting the right stride at the right time, and I felt like we could have done damage.
"Hopefully, that will leave some room for improvement for next season. We have some rest, more than we've had in the past, and hopefully we can capitalize on that and make it count for us."
Still, it's hard not to look back and think the difference between resting at home and preparing to play this weekend could be as little as one play.
What if the Patriots had stopped the Jets on that fateful third and 15 in overtime in an eventual 34-31 loss? Or if Jabar Gaffney had hung on for a go-ahead touchdown pass in the 18-15 loss to the Colts? Or if Matthew Slater hadn't muffed that second-half kickoff against the Steelers?
"It's a lot of what-ifs there," said Seymour. "The reality of it is we're not in and that's disappointing, but I felt like throughout the year if we would have won some of those close games we wouldn't be sitting in this position that we're in right now.
"It's one of those situations where you can woulda, shoulda, coulda, but the reality of it is we didn't get in, and we'll just take our hats off to the teams that are there and look forward to the offseason at this point."
The Patriots' season may have ended prematurely, but that has afforded them a well-earned respite.
That's why Belichick, not prone to sentimental salutes, said, "I think that everybody that participated in this season, in the 11-5 season, has a lot to be proud of."