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Imperfect team could lose key players in offseason

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The only perfect thing about the Patriots was their record.

Now they don't even have that.

Dominant in the first half of the season, they survived some close calls afterward. But that finally caught up with them in the Super Bowl and left them facing an offseason of what-ifs and what-will bes.

What if their offensive line studded with three Pro Bowl players had kept the team's most important player from being knocked down time after time in the most important game?

Will Randy Moss and Asante Samuel leave?

Will Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau, the three oldest defensive starters, retire?

And next time, will coach Bill Belichick hang around until the end of the game instead of heading for the locker room with a second left and a security escort Tom Brady would have envied?

The two-time Super Bowl MVP couldn't elude the steamrolling pass rush of the New York Giants the way he does the paparazzi who stalk him on the streets of the city where the new Super Bowl champions will be honored at a victory parade Tuesday.

Brady was sacked five times in Sunday's 17-14 loss, the most in his 92 games since the New York Jets did that in the third game of the 2003 season on Sept. 21, 2003.

So the Patriots finished 18-1 and disappointed, not 19-0 and historic. That left the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who were 17-0, as the only NFL team to go undefeated.

Brady was a near unanimous choice for the league's MVP and was brilliant in the first eight games of the season. He was not as good after that.

His five worst passer ratings came in his last eight games, including the postseason. In the AFC championship game against San Diego, he threw a season-high three interceptions. In the Super Bowl, he was uncharacteristically inaccurate on some passes even when he had time to throw.

"I'm sure we all could have done things better, but it's just part of competition," Brady said of the devastating defeat.

New England won three Super Bowls in four seasons before falling short the next three years -- losing to Denver in a divisional playoff game, to Indianapolis in last year's AFC championship game and to New York in the latest disappointment.

After coming so close last season, the Patriots added receivers Moss, Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth. They signed free agent Adalius Thomas for their aging group of linebackers. And they kept Samuel, designating the star cornerback a franchise player and signing him for one year after he held out for a long-term contract.

The offense set several single-season records: 50 touchdown passes by Brady, 23 scoring catches by Moss and 589 total points.

But the season began with off-field problems.

Harrison, the hard-hitting safety, was suspended for the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

After the season-opening 38-14 win over the New York Jets, the NFL fined Belichick $500,000 and the team $250,000 and took away a first-round draft choice as punishment for videotaping Jets' coaches on their sideline.

That only fired up the Patriots. They were accused of running up the score in some of their wins.

But the Patriots shrugged off the criticism and kept focusing on the next opponent. They won each of their first eight games by at least 17 points.

Then the powerhouse that pulled away from opponents began letting them hang around.

In their ninth game, they beat Indianapolis 24-20 on a touchdown with 3:15 left. In their 11th, they scored the go-ahead touchdown with 7:20 to go but needed two interceptions in the last four minutes to clinch the 31-28 win over Philadelphia.

The following week was the greatest of escapes.

They trailed 24-20 at Baltimore and failed twice on fourth down in the last two minutes. But the first play was nullified by a false start penalty against the Patriots and the second by a holding call against the Ravens. On the next play, Brady threw the winning 8-yard scoring pass to Jabar Gaffney with 44 seconds left.

And, in the last regular-season game, the defense struggled in a 38-35 win over the Giants.

But how long could their good fortune hold out?

Not long enough.

With 2:42 left in the Super Bowl, Brady's 6-yard touchdown pass to Moss gave the Patriots a 14-10 lead.

But the defense couldn't hold it. Eli Manning directed an 83-yard drive and hit Plaxico Burress for the decisive 13-yard scoring pass with 35 seconds remaining.

Perfection denied.

"It's not even worth talking about it now because it's over. It didn't happen," Bruschi said. "We can look back on this year with a positive attitude and some of the things we accomplished. But when you don't finish, I mean, that's all we're about."

Belichick didn't finish either.

After Brady's fourth-down desperation pass to Moss fell incomplete, Belichick went on the field for a handshake with Giants coach Tom Coughlin.

There was still 1 second left, but Belichick continued toward the locker room as Manning knelt down on the final play. Moss once left the field with 2 seconds remaining in a regular-season loss to Washington when he was with Minnesota and was criticized for it by his quarterback, Daunte Culpepper.

Belichick, at least, will be back.

Seau, 39, may not be.

"I haven't thought about the future. I am having too much fun," he said. Losing "will not affect my decision."

Harrison, 35, was beset by injuries in 2006 and 2007. Bruschi, 34, suffered a stroke after the Patriots last Super Bowl win but returned midway through the next season in 2005.

"I can't let that loss take away from everything that happened this season," Harrison said.

Moss, who took a pay cut for a shot at the Super Bowl, may not be back for another with the Patriots.

"I would love to be in a New England Patriots uniform," he said, "but, if not, the show must go on."

It will continue with Belichick and Brady, of course, partners in four Super Bowls -- all decided by three points.

"We usually are on the better side of those three-point wins," Brady said. "We just have to regroup and come back and try to make it stronger next year."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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