They were thoroughly outplayed Sunday for the second consecutive year in the playoffs, losing to the New York Jets 28-21, one year after falling to the Baltimore Ravens 33-14. And both games were at home, where quarterback Tom Brady's streak of 28 wins -- and counting -- as a regular-season starter is an NFL record.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick spoke to the media Monday, with the loss fresh in his head. He didn't completely dwell on the negative, saying New England had "a better record than any other team. It was good, but it's not the final measuring stick. We've all got a lot of disappointment in the final results."
So the team that led the NFL in scoring (32.4 points per game) will be on the sideline next Sunday, when the Jets (13-5) visit the Pittsburgh Steelers (13-4) for the AFC title and the Green Bay Packers (12-6) visit the Chicago Bears (12-5) for the NFC championship. The Patriots split their regular-season series with the Jets (losing 28-14, then winning 45-3) and beat the Steelers (39-26), Packers (31-27), and Bears (36-7).
Brady led the NFL in passer rating, most touchdown passes (36) and fewest interceptions (4). But Sunday against the Jets, he threw his first interception in 340 passes, was sacked five times and was uncharacteristically off target on several throws.
"We won a bunch in a row against some very good teams and played well," he said. "But playoff football comes, and, really, it comes down to who makes the plays. And we made too many mistakes."
They made a lot a year earlier, too, when they trailed the Ravens 24-0 after one quarter of a wild-card playoff. On Baltimore's first offensive play, Ray Rice ran for an 83-yard touchdown. Brady struggled in that game, too, completing 23 of 42 passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns with three interceptions. He was sacked three times.
Then came Sunday.
"They're both leaving a bad taste in my mouth," New England linebacker Tully Banta-Cain said. "The difference was it was a different opponent, and that's really the only difference. Either way you look at it, we're going home."
Belichick and Brady won their first 10 playoff games together, including Super Bowls after the 2001, 2002 and 2004 seasons. In the six seasons since, the Patriots are 73-23 in the regular season but just 5-5 in the postseason with one Super Bowl appearance -- a 17-14 loss to the New York Giants after the 2007 season.
The Patriots have won five of the last six AFC East titles and -- along with the Jets -- ought to be serious contenders in the division again next season. They again will rely on last year's draft class, which was outstanding and featured Pro Bowl cornerback Devin McCourty, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and linebackers Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes.
"Just can't get complacent," second-year safety Patrick Chung said. "I made a big jump (this season). I can make an even bigger jump. I never get comfortable."
Of course, Chung botched one of the biggest plays in Sunday's loss when he dropped the short snap on a fake-punt attempt with the Jets leading 7-3. He recovered the ball but was thrown for a 2-yard loss, and New York took over at the New England 37-yard line with 1:06 left in the first half. Four plays later, Mark Sanchez threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Braylon Edwards, and the Jets led 14-3 at halftime as a result.
Belichick refused to say if it was Chung's decision to call for the fake.
"I take full responsibility," Chung said. "That's my mistake."
During the regular season, Chung was a major contributor to a young defense, playing at times with four rookie starters, that showed substantial growth. In four of their last five wins, the Patriots outscored opponents 153-20.
"We had gained some momentum from the regular season heading into the playoffs, and it kind of felt like we had some good steam behind that momentum," Banta-Cain said. "And for it to come to a screeching halt, no one was expecting that."
But it happened, and now the Patriots are talking about getting healthy and preparing for next season.
"We beat every team that's (still) in the playoffs," Banta-Cain said. "And, obviously, it's a big disappointment, because we know what we're capable of."
They played far below their capabilities.
"I think that's really where you measure all the teams and see what you can do against those top levels of competition," Belichick said. "There are, obviously, some things that we're going to have to do better relative to that. (We) found that out last year, too."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press