For what feels like the 50th time in the past five years, the New England Patriots slumped to another defeat just short of their ultimate goal. A loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship in 2013 can be added to a Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants in 2012, a divisional round upset to the New York Jets in 2011, another loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the Wildcard Round in 2010 and that infamous Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants in 2008.
Each season feels like a repeat of the previous for Patriots fans at this point. Even though any complaints will receive the empathy equivalent of a 21-year-old running out of his inheritance, the relative pain of consistently coming in second place will eventually take it's toll on Patriots fans. Not to mention, the team itself.
Revisiting the memories of a traumatic experience is never easy, but in order to understand why the ship continues to sink, the holes must be explored. For the Patriots, those holes may be perceived as being few and far between, but they are effective nonetheless. In fact, the first problem is one that the team cannot even control.
The Patriots prepare to win a Super Bowl ahead of every season. At least, that is the finish line that they are guiding themselves towards. The first hurdle on this trip comes in the form of the division. Playing in the AFC East has allowed the Patriots to make the playoffs in eight of the last nine seasons. With opposition such as the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Miami Dolphins having sporadic success over the past decade or so, the Patriots often spend a large chunk of their schedule playing games when they are able to steamroll the opposition in first gear.
Even when they do have a handful of tough opponents to overcome during the regular season, more often than not those games are spread out. Take this season as an example. Despite losing to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2, the Patriots first real playoff caliber of opposition came in Week 3, when they lost in the dying moments to the Baltimore Ravens. The Patriots were able to follow that game up with a blowout victory over the Buffalo Bills, when they weren't being pushed for four quarters. Two playoff teams followed the next two weeks, the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks, but the Patriots had it easy against Peyton Manning as he still dealt with the lingering issues of his neck surgeries.
After that loss in Seattle, the Patriots won a close game against the inferior New York Jets, when they made it tough on themselves. But even if you counted that as a playoff caliber test, the St. Louis Rams offered the Patriots another week when they didn't have to hit top gear at all. A surprisingly close fight at home with the Buffalo Bills followed the team's bye week, but then arrived an ordinary looking Andrew Luck. Luck's Colts were outclassed in Week 11, as the Patriots began the first of three easy games in a row. A blowout victory over the Houston Texans had fans thinking that this was their year, even more than they had previously, but after a short week they suffered the opposite side of that result against the San Francisco 49ers. Struggling to victory over the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars and shutting out the Miami Dolphins acted as the team's preparation for the playoffs.
Now, if you never played a sport(at any level), you likely won't understand the importance of playing quality opposition on a regular basis. It's almost impossible to push yourself to your limit on the field if you have a notable advantage over the team trying to stick with you. However, teams need to be pushed consistently. The term battle-hardened comes to mind. Consider the Baltimore Ravens, a battered and bruised team that will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. For all of the quality players that team lost throughout the season, they gained an edge and ability to sustain their best efforts on a weekly basis by battling in the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers and even the upstart Cleveland Browns. The Ravens were able to understand their own flaws in the regular season, to then be prepared to work through them in the playoffs. The Patriots were never afforded that opportunity.
In order to win a Super Bowl, you have to beat three or four high quality teams within four or five weeks. After 16 games of lying in first, second, third or fourth gear, it's almost impossible to stay in fifth gear for that long. It's not about being the best team in the post-season, it's about playing your best football.
Surpassed the turbulence, or lack thereof, endured by the franchise during the season, their limitations on the field became obvious against the Ravens.
Most notably, the team's secondary played abysmal football. Joe Flacco threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns, but in reality he didn't have to work that hard for anything he did on the day. The lack of a pass rush was evident also, but the Ravens' excellent offensive line played a major part in giving their quarterback time to throw. Even though the Ravens have high quality players in the trenches, their receiving corps really isn't that good.