Seven years ago, the New England Patriots hoisted the Lombardi Trophy after defeating the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. Since that fateful day, every single season has ended in an absolute gut-wrenching fashion. Now, with New England playing in its seventh Super Bowl, Brady, Belichick, and the rest of the Patriots have the opportunity to finally put those lost seasons to rest by achieving the ultimate redemption. But before they do, I wanted to take a moment to revisit each and every one of those six seasons of pain. I've been covering the Patriots since 2002, and at the end of every season, I took the time to reflect on the final game and the season as a whole. For the next six days, I'll be re-running the end-of-the-season article from the past six years. It's time to rip open the scabs and pout salt in these old wounds. Because until you've spent time in the valley, you'll never appreciate the view from the top of the world.
"The Carnival of Idiots"
Written on December 30th, 2008
Ben Rothilsberger decides to reverse Petyon Manning's 3 TD's and 0 INT's with 0 TD's and 3 INT's of his own in Pittsburgh's 24-20 loss to the Colts.
Not that it mattered with the Jets folding to the Seahawks a week later, but at the time, I was sure the Patriots had been done in by Dick Jauron's unfathomable decision to call a passing play when his Bills were leading late in the 4th quarter and he would've choked the Jets by running three times and killing the clock. JP Losman's subsequent fumble returned for a game-winning Jets TD nearly made my head explode.
After Dallas surges to come with 19-17 late in the 4th quarter, the Ravens have the ball. This is an obvious running situation for Baltimore as their best bet is to kill the clock. Will McGahee runs as expected, only none of the Cowboys saw this coming and let him run untouched for a 77-yard touchdown.
Dallas manages to score a quick touchdown to cut the deficit again to 26-24. You would think they'd be prepared for a run this time, right? Not so, because on the ensuing play Baltimore's Le'Ron McClain notches an 82 yard touchdown run.
Fifteen seconds after a Miami touchdown gave the Dolphins a 7-6 lead, Brett Favre thought it would be a good idea to throw the ball directly at a Miami defender. I'm not talking a bad throw or a missed route. I'm talking about having the ball snapped to you and then inexplicably chucking it directly into the chest of a defender. The throw turns into a 25-yard TAINT and the Phins go up 14-6.
With the Jets trailing 24-17 late in the 4th, Brett Favre is tempted to add another legendary drive to his resume. However, he just can't resist the urge to end the season with as many INT's as TD's and once again decides to take the snap and throw the ball DIRECTLY to a Miami defender.
And with that pick, the man who started this entire Carnival rolling with his un-retirement brings the show to a crashing halt. The New England Patriots season is over.
When I look back at the 2008 New England Patriots, I will undoubtedly remember the myriad of stupidity that kept them out of the post-season. Some of those gaffes rest squarely upon their own shoulders. Others, as I've so bitterly chronicled above, were completely out of their control. In the end, no NFL team is an island and each franchise is ultimately affected by how the others perform. Indy's lucky horseshoe streak, Dallas's collapse, the Favre saga - those are all part of what makes the league what it is. Some seasons you reap the benefits like Miami did, other years you get shut out. The Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI because their starting quarterback got injured. By the same token, the Patriots probably lost out on Super Bowl XLIII because their starting quarterback got injured. You have to take the bad with the good. I guess if there's one thing about 2008 that leaves a bad taste in my mouth, it's that an 11-5 team has been left out of the mix while an 8-8 team gets the 4th seed and a playoff game at home.
Far more idiotic than any Brett Favre pick is the current NFL system of 4-team divisions. When you have divisions like the NFC West, the AFC West, and the NFC North guaranteed to hand home playoff games to mediocre-at-best teams how is that good for the league? I realize that things change over time and in four years the NFC West could be a powerhouse and the NFC East could be pathetic, but can you ever think of a year when all eight division winners were arguably among the best four teams in their conference? The Chargers are tied for the 8th and 9th best record in the AFC this year! They aren't even clearly in the top half of the conference! Andyet they're HOSTING the 12-4 Colts this weekend? It's just ridiculous. Want some more insanity about the Patriots' situation? The 12-4 Steelers who finished ONE game better than New England earned a bye week. How does ONE game make the difference between getting a 1st round bye and not making the playoffs at all? Explain to me how that makes any sense! Or what about the fact that after New England smashed Arizona by 40 points in Week 15, the Cardinals had two more losses than the Patriots, but had already clinched a home playoff game on Week 13? Seriously, the Patriots got a 1st round bye and won the Super Bowl at 11-5 back in 2001. The Giants won it all last year at 10-6! The fact that something like this is even possible proves the system is broken...
...and I have a way to fix it. The league needs to scrap the four divisions and go back to having just an East and West for the AFC and NFC. If you win your eight-team division, you get an automatic bye. The other four playoff spots go to the teams with the best record. You're pretty much guaranteed to have the the best six teams competing for the conference crown and it makes winning the division mean that much more. Some may argue that this would kill rivalries, but if you simply merged the East and South divisions and North and West divisions, you would keep all the feuds intact. It works perfectly geographically, with one one exception possibly being the need to flip the Texans and Ravens as no team bordering the Atlantic Ocean should be in a "West" division.
This is how your 2008 Playoff Seedings would look...
Yes, I realize that the only team difference is the Patriots over the Chargers - but that's no homerism, just fairness. 11-5 should get precidence over 8-8 every time. With this system the Colts also get a home playoff game, which is fair. As do the Falcons, also fair. The one and only "unfair" aspect to this whole system is that the Vikings would get a bye week at 9-7. Still, they would've beaten seven other teams to earn it, not three. Also, when you break it down, forcing Carolina to play an extra home game against the weak Cardinals is hardly as unjust as the Patriots not getting a playoff game at all. A perfect system doesn't exist, but what I've proposed is worlds better than the current mockery the league is using.
At any rate, an 11-5 season is nothing to hang your head about. There are 22 other teams in the league who would have loved to have that record. If you had told at the beginning of the year that we were losing Tom Brady, and Rodney Harrison, and Adalius Thomas, and Lawrence Maroney, and Tedy Bruschi - and that Deltha O'Neal would be featured heavily at corner back for most of the season, I would've gladly taken my chances with 11-5. While there were certainly many mistakes and bumps along the road, the Patriots managed to band together and weather the storm, literally. Needing to win out their schedule to even have a prayer of the post-season, the Patriots withstood a Northwest downpour, a New England blizzard, and 60-mile-per-hour winds in Buffalo to secure their tie atop the standings with Miami. In the end, they looked nothing like the team I had berated in my article four weeks ago. Instead, they looked like the champions I knew they could be, finally clicking into gear and peaking at just the right moment.
Unfortunately, that moment will never come.