Starr: Are the Patriots Done?

My dear pal and fellow Patriots obsessive Terry is throwing a surprise birthday party for his wife tonight. (Don't worry about the surprise, she never reads my column.) What makes Terry's plan so clever is that tonight is actually Sima's birthday.

So she has no reason to suspect any ulterior motive (though she pretty much automatically does with Terry). Terry, of course, does have an ulterior motive—and a damned good one. At the considerable expense of pate, cassoulet, vin rouge and mousse au chocolat, he is sparing himself, as well as me, considerable pain. The celebration provides the perfect excuse not to watch the Giants host the Redskins in tonight's NFL opener and to avoid hearing those two precious words attached to the New York Giants: world champions!

Frankly, Terry is still having a little trouble dealing with the Patriots' Super Bowl loss, prone to overly long recitations of the multiple calamities of the game's final minutes. It is always the same refrain—easy interceptions missed, Eli Manning in the grasp, the "miracle" catch by a spare-parts receiver etc. etc. etc—that serves no purpose except self-flagellation. And, inevitably, he winds up in a bath of tears.

I, by contrast, have remained stoic throughout the ordeal, donning the veneer of professionalism to protect me from what might otherwise have been an ordeal. In my game story, I suggested that we Pats fans had completely embraced an equally improbable upset-our first Super Bowl win over the St. Louis Rams team known as "The Greatest Show on Turf." So this less happy result had to be borne as the flip side of being a genuine sports fan. Moreover, the fluky ending had obscured how the Giants had pushed the Pats around for much of the game and you could easily say they deserved to win. OK, maybe not so easily. But say it enough times and you might come to believe it. I even heard myself saying exactly that to Giants coach Tom Coughlin when we chatted recently about his new book.

With that gracious posture, I hoped to obscure—especially from myself—just how shattering the whole experience was. It wasn't just the history thing, the loss of that never-to-be-seen-again perfect season. Far more was at stake. We Patriots lifers—I attended the very first Pats game in 1960—have witnessed the team's ascension from NFL laughingstock to its juggernaut. The Pats were the model franchise, admired throughout the league. But last season's  [[http://www.blog.newsweek.com/blogs/starr/archive/2008/03/10/spygate.aspx]]   "++Spygate++"—a fair reflection of a brilliant coach's arrogance—had transformed envy into enmity. And for those of us who like to write with more than a hint of sanctimony, that was a particularly painful about-face. We Pats fans may never have admitted it, but the nightmarish Super Bowl ending felt more than a little like just desserts.

The only real comfort was the contemplation of future glories and rapid redemption, my absolute conviction that the Pats would return to the top. But as I summered in Beijing, I began to sense another possibility. Beijing may not be a football stronghold, but it's a pretty good place to contemplate the fate of dynasties. After all, those Mings built a fine good wall and they didn't last even three centuries (a century back then, I figure, being about the equivalent of three football seasons). And even from the other side of the world, I could sense some foreboding in Foxboro. The Pats went 0-4 in the preseason and weren't nearly as good as their record indicated. What was described to me—in Boston newspapers and in despairing e-mails from friends—was an overall listlessness, a seeming lack of effort, never before witnessed on the field during the Bill Belichick era.

The offense at least had an excuse what with NFL MVP Tom Brady sidelined with a foot injury that, in the best Pats' tradition, wasn't detailed any more than his ankle injury was before the Super Bowl. The defense, however, had no excuses. And in each game the opponent marched virtually unmolested to a touchdown the first time it had the ball. Key free-agent signees expected to shore up weaknesses at linebacker and cornerback didn't even make the squad and the entire defense appeared a step or several too slow.

So now I'm terrified that the Super Bowl loss was not just a bump in the road, but rather the first precipitous decline that will mark the end of our dynasty. Most of my Pats brethren still embrace the bump theory. They, as well as most experts, insist that with a weak division and a remarkably easy schedule, the Pats are a lock for the playoffs. A few even suspect that the poor preseason showing may have been deliberate, reflecting Belichick's adaptability. Having seen his team falter down the stretch last season—and there were signs long before the Super Bowl—he may be opting for a slow build. After all, the 2001 Patriots that won the franchise's first Super Bowl started 1-3 and 5-5 and didn't find its rhythm until after Thanksgiving. Does anybody doubt that 11-5 ending with a championship beats 16-0 that ends without even the Miss Congeniality award. Belichick doesn't need to channel Vince Lombardi to know winning is indeed the only thing.

I deplore that sentiment, but fear I've come to share it—at least when it comes to being a member of the Foxboro faithful in the stands each home Sunday. I have been spoiled for most of a decade now and, at least for me, there's no turning back. I look at those San Francisco 49er fans, folks who witnessed the NFL's greatest glories, and wonder how they have endured the decline and the long years now of wretched football. If the Pats' Super Bowl loss to the Giants was, in fact, the beginning of the end, my stoicism and good sportsmanship will be exposed as frauds. And Terry and I will spend a lot of time planning Sunday brunches with our wives and, of course, weeping copious tears.

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