- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The answer might simply be that it's hard to win a Super Bowl championship in the NFL, and perspective in New England is skewed after the Patriots made it look easy in capturing three titles over four seasons from 2001 to 2004. A lot of NFL teams would like that track record.
Or maybe it's something else.
In the aftermath of the Patriots' disappointing loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Sunday's AFC Championship Game, seemingly everyone is attempting to diagnose why Bill Belichick's club hasn't gotten over the hump since its last title. There have been some heartbreaking losses deep in the playoffs since that time, including the 2006 AFC Championship Game in Indianapolis, and Super Bowl XLII and XLVI against the New York Giants.
So the question was brought directly to the boss himself on Monday, with Belichick asked if there were any common threads that he sees from those defeats.
"I think each of those games have their own individual characteristics. Obviously, they're all losses, so that's the thing you want to point to," he responded. "Then there are certain things that go with [it] when you lose games. [But] rather than trying to look from the back forward, I think really the way that I would try to analyze it is to look at it as the process, piece by piece, each step along the way, rather than say, 'OK, here's the final result.'
"Let's backtrack it," he continued. "Whether you won or lost, that's not always the determining factor. It's what can you do better along the way. Then try to improve the things that didn't go well, win or lose."
So although it's not exactly in the spirit of which Belichick suggested, let's go back and ask the question: What defined these losses?
• The 2005 divisional-round playoff loss in Denver -- five Patriots turnovers. Cornerback Champ Bailey's 100-yard interception return was what we remember most.
• The 2006 AFC Championship loss in Indianapolis -- defense runs out of gas. The Patriots led 21-3 midway through the second quarter but couldn't hold on.
• Super Bowl XLII loss to the Giants in the 2007 season -- losing control of the line of scrimmage/out-of-the-norm helmet catch. As former left tackle Matt Light said, the Patriots' offensive line picked the wrong time to have its worst night, but it still would have been enough if David Tyree didn't make a miraculous catch on his helmet.
• The 2010 divisional-round loss to the Jets -- turnovers and porous defense. The Patriots were in control early until quarterback Tom Brady's interception -- and later Patrick Chung's ill-advised fake punt -- altered the tide.
• Super Bowl XLVI loss to the Giants in the 2011 season -- losing the critical situations. This could have been different if Brady and receiver Wes Welker connected in the fourth quarter, or the defense rose up with a stop on the Giants' final 88-yard drive.
• Sunday's loss to the Ravens in the AFC Championship -- losing the critical situations in second half. With a Super Bowl berth on the line in the final 30 minutes at home, the Patriots fizzled as the can't-be-intimidated Ravens pushed them around, knocked them out and moved the ball with relative ease.
Common threads, anyone? The three that stand out are not meeting the physical match, poor clutch play and a defense that might keep the game close, but doesn't deliver the plays to win it.
When it comes to physicality, it showed up most Sunday inside the red zone, where the Patriots scored one touchdown in four trips and the Ravens scored four touchdowns in four trips, which Belichick cited as a key to the game. When the space gets tight, it makes sense that the more powerful team often wins. And the Bernard Pollard hit that knocked out running back Stevan Ridley, dislodging the ball from his grasp, highlighted which team was playing with more force.
Watching it all unfold, this question came to mind: Have the Patriots become too much of a finesse offense in recent years? The way the Ravens beat them up brought back recollections of Super Bowl XXXVI and what the Patriots did to the Rams.
As for the poor clutch play, the Patriots once were known as the team that rises up in the critical situations and doesn't beat itself. It is an identity they have to recreate each year, which is why we often hear buzzwords like "situational football" and "mental toughness," but they've lost some of their mojo in this area. The mistake-free football they've often played in the regular season hasn't translated to the playoffs, where one or two plays can be the difference. In each of their most recent playoff losses, the Patriots lost in this area.
And finally, the defense remains a question mark. A unit that had appeared to make positive strides was exposed by the Ravens, just as it was by the Giants, Jets and Ravens in the team's previous three playoff losses. Part of it was because of injuries, but there just didn't seem to be enough playmakers on the field Sunday. No opponents seem to fear the Patriots' D.
Surely, there are some deeper answers that will be revealed in some form when Belichick goes through the process and comes to his own conclusions as to what needs to change for the Patriots. If history has taught us anything, it's that Belichick won't be shy about lighting a stick of dynamite and sparking change in certain areas. That's part of the intrigue ahead.
But as Belichick said, before one can go forward it's important to backtrack, which comes back to common threads from the team's most recent painful playoff defeats.
Maybe it's that it is simply hard to win a championship in the NFL. Or maybe the issues run deeper than that.
2hEric D. Williams
1dBy Ian O'Connor