Not much else was consistent for a team that hoped to prolong its dynasty of the past decade with the return of its star quarterback. Instead, it started the new one with a lopsided loss that no one expected.
Carucci: End of a dynasty?
New England's loss to Baltimore had the feeling of something more pronounced than the loss of a single playoff game. After a while, you sensed you weren't watching football so much as attending a funeral, Vic Carucci writes. More ...
He has no intention of finding answers -- to that or to how to fix the team's many problems -- so soon after such a disappointing finish. It's good, Belichick said, "to let the dust settle."
Some questions will linger into next season.
Will Welker, who led the NFL with 123 receptions, be ready for the 2010 opener? Will 2006 first-round pick Laurence Maroney have another chance after he again failed to establish himself as a dangerous running back?
Is Brady's late-season fade -- fewer than 200 passing yards in four of his last five games while burdened by finger and rib injuries -- a sign he'll never play at an elite level again after his knee injury in the 2008 opener? Was Randy Moss' ineffectiveness in several late-season games a result of too much coverage or too little effort?
Will the Patriots let Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency, leave? Can the young linebackers, led by second-year pro Jerod Mayo, bring the passion and performance that veterans Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel did to the position as part of the Patriots' three championship teams? And while safety Brandon Meriweather is in the Pro Bowl in his third NFL season, younger defensive backs remain unproven.
"The rookie players learn a lot every week," Belichick said. "Probably, for each player, it's a little bit different -- dealing with injuries, coaches, scheme, with veteran players, with all the other obligations that they have, just finding that balance. And the second time around, hopefully, it will be an improvement for everybody."
The Patriots' inconsistency was more evident in the second half of the season, with three losses in four games followed by three consecutive wins and ending with a defeat in which they blew a 14-point lead in the last 10 minutes at Houston. That left New England at 10-6.
"We had our ups and downs, but (the players) were very professional," Belichick said. "I thought we had a good attitude and a good approach to the things we tried to do."
Still, stronger leadership might have helped.
Before this season, Bruschi and safety Rodney Harrison retired, Vrabel and defensive end Richard Seymour were traded, and special-teams star Larry Izzo left as a free agent. All, with the possible exception of Seymour, were past their peaks. But all were symbolic of what became known as "the Patriot Way" -- a superior commitment to hard work in practice and games.
"These are special players and special guys," Brady said on his contractually mandated Monday appearance on WEEI radio. "It's not the Patriot uniform that makes the team play the Patriot Way that you refer to. It's the coaches and the players all collectively working toward the same goal, and any time you lose players like that, there is a loss.
"Obviously, the leadership on our team wasn't where it needed to be, and I'm speaking for myself."
New England won the AFC East for the sixth time in the last seven seasons. It returned to the playoffs after missing them the previous year. But that's scant consolation for Brady, running back Kevin Faulk and offensive tackle Matt Light, the only current Patriots who played in all three Super Bowl wins. To them, anything less than a championship would be a decline.
"We had our chance this year to do something special and we weren't able to do it," said linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, a member of the Patriots' last two title teams in the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
That was the 29th and last time Brady brought the Patriots to victory after trailing or being tied in the fourth quarter. With Welker hurt, Moss shut down and Brady nursing his own injuries, he couldn't do it against Baltimore.
The season was over.
"It's like you're on a treadmill," Belichick said. "If you hit the stop button, it stops and you fall off, and that's where you are in the NFL playoffs."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press