Winning games has become old hat in New England.
Winning another NFL championship has been a much different issue.
For the second straight season, the Patriots played host to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship. But those looking for a repeat of last year's result had to be stunned as the third-highest scoring team in NFL history scored a season-low 13 points in a 28-13 loss.
Don't get me wrong. The Patriots are still in the midst of their current dynasty, despite the fact that they haven't closed the deal since winning Super Bowl XXXIX after the 2004 campaign.
Think about it. Dating back to 2001, there's a total of 12 consecutive winning seasons (tied for the seventh-longest streak in NFL history), 10 AFC East titles and five Super Bowl appearances, with three titles. And there's been no sign of this club not remaining in contention.
But you have to admit. The Patriots have gone out of their way NOT to win a Super Bowl lately.
Consider that in 2006, the team owned a 21-3 second-quarter lead at Indianapolis in the AFC title game and wound up losing to Peyton Manning and company, 38-34.
In 2007, the Pats completed the first 16-0 campaign in NFL history and entered Super Bowl XLII with an 18-0 record. They lost to a Giants team that they had beaten five weeks earlier.
A year later, Belichick and company lost quarterback Tom Brady in the first quarter of their season opener and with Matt Cassel at the helm still finished 11-5. But they missed the playoffs, losing a tiebreaker in the division with the Miami Dolphins---the only 11-win team to be on the outside looking in come the postseason under the league's current playoff format.
It gets somewhat worse.
In both 2009 and 2010, Belichick's squad finished 8-0 at home and was the host for both of their first playoff games. In '09, the Ravens came to Gillette Stadium and left with a 33-14 victory. In '10, the Jets stunned the No. 1 seeded Patriots, 28-21, quite a turnaround for a team that had come to Foxborough roughly a month earlier and lost, 45-3.
Last season, the Pats were once again the No. 1 seed in their conference and they parlayed that into a return trip to the Super Bowl. Brady and company were riding a 10-game overall winning streak into Indianapolis where they once again ran into Tom Coughlin's Giants and lost, 21-17.
Now this season's disappointment, which saw the Patriots with a 13-7 halftime lead before being outscored 21-0 in a painful final 30 minutes.
So what's next for this team? An NFL record four seasons of scoring 500 or more points (all within the last six years) has not netted another Lombardi Trophy. The defensive side of the ball remains an issue although there's some young talent to develop. And while some feel as long as Brady and Belichick remain together that this is a Super Bowl championship team, we seem to be getting further from that notion than closer.
Is this the end of the line for these Patriots? An intriguing question indeed.
Russell S. Baxter has spent the last 40-plus years watching football. A former NFL research coordinator for ESPN, he is the founder of ProFootballGuru.com, writes for numerous websites and publications across the country and was blessed with an encyclopedic memory. Ready to talk NFL? Follow him on Twitter at @BaxFootballGuru.
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