The moment the official confirmation came that Tom Brady's season was over a half-quarter into the season, the vast national network of New England Patriots haters (headquarters: Bristol, Conn.) figuratively gathered, popped the Korbel, and danced on your favorite football team's grave. Again.
So in that regard, a tremendous amount of satisfaction can be found in the developments of the last 13 games. The 2008 Patriots, to the surprise of many who are paid to supposedly know better, have emerged as an admirable, entertaining, and -- as usual -- winning football team. And so it's a blessing that the majority of fans were shrewd enough to ignore the tired advice to wait 'til next year, because we would have missed out on a good amount of success and suspense this season, the latter regarding the Patriots' noble attempt to limp into the postseason. Basic math tells us a playoff berth isn't a sure thing -- it would certainly help the cause if the Jets remember it is their tradition to swallow their collective tongues or Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco remembers he's a rookie -- but just getting there would be an accomplishment worth savoring for this band of football brothers.
Given the Patriots' perpetual war of attrition -- losing the transcendent Brady, as well as their emotional leader on defense (Rodney Harrison), their most versatile linebacker (Adalius Thomas), their tap-dancing but talented starting running back (Laurence Maroney), and a trainer's room full of others -- it was natural to anticipate the tipping point, that one injury that would finally render the cause lost. It hasn't happened yet, and what we've been given instead are numerous compelling subplots and storylines en route to 9-5 and beyond: The emergence of longtime designated clipboard holder Matt Cassel as a better-than-capable starting quarterback ... Richard Seymour's return to prominence and more than occasional dominance ... The December call to action for ancient linebackers Junior Seau and Rosey Colvin, and the development of the youngsters at the position, including top pick Jerod Mayo and a pair of promising rookie free agents ... Welkah! ... The remarkably efficient and underrated running-game-by-committee, including Best Name Ever candidate BenJarvus Green-Ellis ... Deltha O'Neal's noble attempt to continue his career as an NFL cornerback despite, by appearances, having a debilitating case of vertigo, at least one glass eye, and very possibly a wooden leg.
It’s also been a redemptive ride, particularly for the embattled man in the hoodie. This certainly is not Bill Belichick’s finest coaching job — thwarting the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI with that flawed roster is an achievement that might go unmatched in NFL annals — but he has provided a reminder that there have been few, if any, superior tacticians in the history of the sport, and he doesn’t need a camera-wielding underling to prove it. He’ll probably never tell us until the season is complete, but he must be incredibly proud of this team.
Now, I'm not suggesting anyone should actually savor this season more than the last, because all options considered, I think we'd all prefer that the Patriots thumped their opponents and pillaged other NFL villages with the brutal efficiency of their historic, if ultimately unfulfilled, run of a year ago. But this season has been an interesting contrast to the previous one. And in certain ways it has been more enjoyable.
Oh, you'd think the journey to 18-0 would have been a blast from beginning to end, but between SpyGate, Running-UpTheScoreGate, ConsensualHorseplayGate, BradyInABootOnTMZGate, and all the other saturation "coverage" on disgracefully slanted ESPN and elsewhere, it turned out that the only fun in following this team came during that peaceful three-hour stretch on Sundays (and the occasional Monday) when they actually played the damn game. The burden of wearing the bull's-eye clearly affected the players by the stunning end, when football immortality slipped from their grasp and the scoreboard read Giants 17, Patriots 14. (A recent, related lament: Why couldn't Plaxico Burress have capped himself in the thigh before that game? Huh? Huh?)
The long season wore on us, too, especially after the truth set in: We New Englanders are the only ones who owned a shred of affection and appreciation for the Patriots. Everyone besides you and me — to borrow a favorite word from Tom Jackson — hated them, and no, that is not too strong a statement. The ancillary white noise shouldn’t have sapped the fun from being a fan. But it did; turns out it’s a drag being Goliath. I found myself looking forward to the day the network nitwits moved on to the next controversy and the Patriots could be covered like just another football team again.
Back on track
In the cloudy aftermath of the Super Bowl loss, I wondered if, during the high-flying, record-setting season, the Patriots somehow lost their way, the essence of what they once were and what they should be. During their three-titles-in-four-years heyday, one of their most appealing attributes was their toughness, whether it was in overcoming the perennially soft Colts or winning a street brawl with the Steelers or Titans. But during the loss in Arizona in February, they were uncharacteristically sluggish, and it was apparent even when time remained on the clock that the Giants craved the Lombardi Trophy more. This season has restored our faith that the Super Bowl was a poorly timed hiccup, that the Patriots’ toughness generally remains intact.
The next few weeks will tell us whether this particular crew of Patriots — tough, yes, but perhaps overmatched in healthy talent — will win anything of significance on the field. But, as they’ve fought and battled their way toward that still-uncertain destiny, staying alive despite the injuries and odds, they’ve long since won our admiration. Given the way we were told the season was supposed to go, I figure that in itself counts as a hell of a feat.
OT columnist Chad Finn is a sports reporter for Boston.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org