'Second season' not kind to Patriots

Call it the Curse of Asante.

Nothing has quite gone the Patriot Way since cornerback Asante Samuel let a game-sealing interception slip through his fingers in the final minutes of Super Bowl XLII. Within seconds, David Tyree hauled in his improbable helmet catch and the New York Giants pulled off a colossal upset. Samuel bolted to the Philadelphia Eagles as a free agent a month later.

Since that shocking Super Bowl loss in 2008, the New England Patriots have been just another football franchise. Although their faithful followers have long boasted they have the best coach and the best quarterback, the duo of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have submitted a tepid 5-5 record in the playoffs since their last Super Bowl victory, including a 2-5 mark against teams they had faced during the regular season.

So much for the notion that Belichick is second to none when it comes to preparation.

Just like that, the Patriots have become yesterday's news. The same pundits who were touting New England as the best team in the league a week ago are now dismissing Brady and Belichick as overrated icons whose best days are behind them.

The coach and the quarterback long ago cemented their legacies with three Super Bowl wins. But are the recent postseason events a series of independent breakdowns or a pattern of futility?

So often in the playoffs, a game can hinge on one or two critical plays. Brady addressed that fact the week before he faced the New York Jets.

"Part of the building process with a team is working through mistakes," Brady explained. "It's about getting 11 guys on the same page.

"The perfect route could be called versus the perfect defense. The receiver might run the perfect route and the quarterback might be dropping back to make the perfect throw, but the offensive lineman gets his foot stepped on, and the defensive guy gets to the quarterback, and it's an interception. Those things happen. You have to ready for everything."

Brady will be haunted by the only pick he threw in his final 11 games, the botched screen pass to BenJarvus Green-Ellis in the first series of Sunday's game on a drive that seemed headed for the end zone.

It was an uncharacteristic error that stunned both the quarterback and his team. The collective gasp in Gillette Stadium when he threw the ball was a memorable moment. Brady never really established much of a rhythm the rest of the game. Give the Jets credit for that. As Wes Welker revealed after the game, the Patriots practiced all week expecting man coverage and were hit with a package of mixed zone defenses instead.

That's on Belichick, who was outfoxed by Rex Ryan on the football field and in front of the microphone. New England was caught off guard by the Jets' schemes and wasn't able to sufficiently adjust. We may never know the full story of the fake punt, but it sure looked like a desperation play at a time when the game was far from being decided.

This particular Patriots defeat will linger because of the arrogance of the opponent -- and the surgical efficiency New England had exhibited right up until the postseason.

The all-time greats in every sport, when they finally retire and have the benefit of hindsight, reflect back on their careers and identify the ones that got away.

Larry Bird has lamented 1982, 1985 and 1987 as wasted postseasons; in each case, he felt, his team was good enough to win it all.

Brady will certainly point to 2008 and 2011 as his lost opportunities. He will be 34 in August and with major knee surgery behind him, he's acutely aware of how fleeting success can be.

The Patriots should be among the elite NFL teams next season. They are a young team that has plenty of room to grow. They don't need a major overhaul, but they need to bolster the front defensive seven (pass rusher, anyone?) and add some depth for an offensive line that is in flux. A veteran running back that can break a 40-yard run once in a while wouldn't hurt either.

The component that set the Patriots' three Super Bowl championship teams apart was the ability to make big plays on the defensive side of the ball. Whether it was Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel or Willie McGinest, they found a way to force turnovers. There was an edge to that nucleus that resonated in the locker room, along with their uncommon solidarity.

Give New England's collection of young defenders some time to grow together. They are still carving out their identities.

So what happens in the meantime? Belichick will retreat to his offseason bunker and watch film -- over and over again. Brady will retreat to his California home to do the same.

He will, at some point, train with Wes Welker and Deion Branch, and, if the young tight ends know what's good for them, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as well.

Had the Patriots and Brady been able to score on those first two drives against the Jets, maybe the game would have gone differently. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez would have been forced to do more if his team trailed. As Patriots tight end Alge Crumpler surmised, "If we got out on them early, it wouldn't have been close."

That's not how it played out. The Jets were patient, made sound plays at critical junctures. They played mistake-free football, which was, ironically, the mantra of the New England Patriots throughout 2010.

But the playoffs are the start of a new year, and as the Patriots have learned all too well, anything can happen in that "second season."

Just ask Asante Samuel.

Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.