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Until next year

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  February 10, 2012 12:20 PM

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In the gray corridors beneath Lucas Oil Stadium, the contrast of joy and pain was so drastic Sunday night that it almost became disorienting if you swiveled from one scene to the other too fast.

In an open area -- if it was a room, it was a room hosting a party so raucous that it bled into the hallway -- the Giants whooped and hollered and embraced and piled up the trash talk. They were the Super Bowl champions, righteously so. They were delirious.

Down the hall and in another open room, a distance as close as the game itself, the Patriots arrived, one by one, to stand there with their open wounds in front of the media swarm. They were dutiful and resolute, desperately so. They were devastated.

It's probably not headline news to suggest sympathy doesn't come easily to sports writers as a species. Dealing with men who make exponentially more money, who date the world's most glamorous women, and who -- this really bugs sports writers -- eat at restaurants for free can lead to an accelerated onset of envy.

Most of us in this business seem to have a predilection for cynicism anyway. It's not just easy to become jaded -- it's an inevitability if you don't constantly remind yourself how damn fortunate you are to be writing about games for a living.

But even my fellow notepad-toters with the charm of an eel had to feel for Wes Welker, the ball having slipped from his sure hands, and with it, his red-tinted eyes told you, a chance to hold the Lombardi Trophy. Hell, yes, you had to feel for him, hearing him blame himself in a whisper that barely could be heard over the Giants whooping in the distance.

Then there was Brady, possibly the only man ever to walk the earth to look pallid and empty while being consoled by a supermodel. Maybe Gisele wouldn't make for much of a teammate -- a quarterback never blames his receivers, and by proxy that applies to the quarterback's wife. But watching their tender, personal moment unfold in front of countless cameras and slack jaws, it was apparent she knew how just much that single football game meant to her husband, who at that moment looked like he had everything in the world and nothing at all.

As we waited for the next player to arrive and spill his emotions for immediate documentation, a fellow writer I respect remarked that she felt bad for the younger players who still don't know what it feels like to win a Super Bowl.

Their disappointment was certainly palpable, from the noble Rob Gronkowski, who steadfastly refused to confirm that his ankle injury had rendered him a relative bystander (had he played with the ferocity and joy we saw all season, he would have become as popular nationally as he is in New England), to stoic James Ihedigbo, defiant Patrick Chung, and Jerod Mayo, who was still in full uniform, as if keeping it on meant it hadn't ended, not yet.

But it also dawns on you during the sad aftermath that there are longstanding veterans on this team who don't know the overwhelming feeling of standing on a podium beneath a shower of confetti as the silver trophy is raised to the sky. The Patriots have three Super Bowls, of course, but none in the past seven years. Logan Mankins has never won. Neither has Stephen Gostkowski. Or Welker.

It's why the scene of Brady with his consoling wife was so poignant, why Welker's matter-of-fact self-flagellation will stay with me for a while. The veterans, they knew. There may be other chances, but they are so damn hard to come by, so dependent on hard work and endurance and talent and luck. They knew. A beautiful opportunity had been lost for good.

That's the cruel thing about waiting until next year in the NFL: The standings can be shuffled with just one legal act of violence on a Sunday afternoon. Bernard Pollard drives his helmet through Brady's kneecap halfway through the first quarter of the first game of the 2008 season, and plans to avenge their lost chance at perfection became an unwanted debate as to whether untested Matt Cassel should play or someone from the QB junkyard like Daunte Culpepper should be signed. The best team in the NFL this year may have been the Pittsburgh Steelers. Injuries deprived them of a chance to confirm it.

That the Patriots made the most of their opportunities this year -- right up until the season's fateful final moments, anyway -- is one reason we'll remember them well even if the final chapter ended with a cruel twist. (Watching the Welker drop is painful, but the what-if that will linger with me is the Hail Mary. Gronk was so ... damn ... close to the greatest ending in sports history.) This was a very likable team, one that won its coach's respect weeks ago with its effort and determination, if not its raw talent.

The final irony was that an extraordinarily efficient and diverse passing offense let them them down in the end, while a defense that still perplexes me as to whether or not its "improvement" against all those subpar quarterbacks was genuine essentially did its job in the Super Bowl. The offense, this offense, should have been able to provide more than 21 points. It stinks that two near-misses have dented Tom Brady's legacy in the eyes of some, because if the defense can make a stand after his go-ahead drive in Super Bowl XLII or his effectiveness isn't reduced after being crushed by Justin Tuck with 21 minutes remaining in this Super Bowl, he has five rings and there is no debate over who the greatest of all-time is. Sometimes I think we've forgotten what a lousy quarterback looks like around here.

Instead, the pursuit of that elusive fourth ring begins anew for Brady and Belichick next fall, or immediately really. With four picks in the first two rounds, immediate help to the defense should be on the way, provided they avoid the Butlers and Wilhites and Wheatleys and find a couple of defensive backs who can actually follow a game plan and make a play from time to time. The offense should again be a precise machine -- I can't wait to see what Gronk has in store in his third season, and the hunch here is that a legitimate three-down running back will emerge from the current depth chart, whether it's Stevan Ridley or Shane Vereen. The future is bright even as Brady moves into his mid-30s, football middle age to be generous.

A sixth Super Bowl appearance in 12 years seems a reasonable prognostication. But we also know how difficult the journey is just to get there. Which is why it stays with you -- whether you're a veteran, a rookie, or a reporter taking it all in -- when it ends just an arm's length from the pinnacle.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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