FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The New England Patriots know plenty about the teams playing for a berth in the Super Bowl. They beat all four of them during the regular season.
Once the postseason starts, though, the Patriots don't stick around very long. At least not anymore.
They were thoroughly outplayed for the second straight year in the playoffs on Sunday, 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 Tom Brady's streak of 28 wins — and counting — as a regular-season starter is an NFL record.
New England was 14-2 heading into the playoffs. The Patriots regrouped following a stunning 34-14 loss to the Cleveland Browns, and won the last eight regular-season games. But in the playoffs, there's no chance to come back from a setback.
Coach Bill Belichick spoke to the media Monday, with the loss fresh in his head. He didn't dwell completely on the negative, though, saying that the Patriots 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 New York (13-5) visits Pittsburgh (13-4) for the AFC title, and Green Bay (12-6) visits Chicago (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 against the Jets on Sunday, 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 very 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, two touchdowns and three interceptions. He was sacked three times.
Then came Sunday.
"They're both leaving a bad taste in my mouth," linebacker Tully Banta-Cain said as his teammates filled and dragged out black plastic trash bags filled with the leftovers of a season cut short. "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."
There was a time when fans felt that as long as the Patriots had Belichick as their coach and Brady as their quarterback, the team always would be a threat to win the Super Bowl.
The evidence to counter that view is mounting now that the Patriots have gone six seasons since their last Super Bowl win.
Belichick and Brady won their first 10 postseason 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 — should be serious contenders again in the division. They will again 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.
And the Patriots, who far exceeded preseason expectations, have a good chance for another productive draft this year with six picks in the first three rounds, including the 17th (obtained from Oakland before the 2009 season for defensive end Richard Seymour) and their own, No. 28.
"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 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. The Jets led, 14-3, at halftime, as a result.
Belichick refused to say whether it was Chung's decision to call for the fake.
"I take full responsibility," Chung said. "That's my mistake."
During the regular season, he 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, however.
"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."