By: Bob George/
December 28, 2008

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- In life, things happen all the time that just don't seem fair.

There is no question that the New England Patriots, the now deposed AFC Champs, finished better than anyone else in the AFC East, and that neither Miami nor the Jets covered themselves with glory in their regular season finale. It's hard to believe that Miami, who wound up winning the AFC East after a 1-15 record in 2007, will be able to get past Baltimore in the first round. It will be harder to fathom that the Patriots, whom the Ravens feared to have to play in the postseason on the road, won't get the chance to see that matchup become reality.

After doing their part and defeating the Buffalo Bills in a maelstrom at Ralph Wilson Stadium, 13-0, the Patriots were forced to get on a plane for home and hope that either Jacksonville could beat Baltimore or the Jets could beat Miami. Taking a page from 1980, both scenarios went against the Patriots, as Baltimore cleaned house at home, 27-7 over the woeful Jags, and the Dolphins nailed down their first division title since 2000 by defeating the Jets at Exit 16-W, 24-17. The Patriots thus become the first team since the 1985 Denver Broncos to go 11-5 and not make the playoffs. Ironically, the Patriots were one of the teams in 1985 to knock Denver out of the postseason, and that Patriot team went all the way to Super Bowl XX.

This bitter season ending for the Patriots cannot be laid at the feet of the New York Jets, at least not completely. The Jets played the Dolphins hard for the better part of the game, but Patriot Nation will be gnashing their teeth over Brett Favre, the Pro Bowl quarterback who threw three interceptions, two of them costly, to literally hand the game to Miami. Favre did throw a touchdown pass of his own and kept his team in the game until the final minutes, but in the end Favre threw too many passes he throws against everyone in the league except the Patriots. The Dolphins thus complete a ten-game improvement, tying the 1999 Colts for best in league history.

Truth be told, the Jets did more to wound the Patriots with their win at Foxborough during Week 11 than they did on Sunday. Favre had one of his best games of the season in that game (a 119.4 passer rating) and completed that 16-yard pass to Dustin Keller in overtime which turned out to be arguably the most damaging play against the Patriots all season long. The Patriots would likely not have been in this position to root for the Jets if they had not blown the coverage on that one very important play.

The Patriots instead learned once again that you need to control your own destiny if you want to make the playoffs. 2001 was the one exception, where most every external break the Patriots could have gotten, they got to get them to the two seed and eventually to Super Bowl XXXVI. Ironically, the game which nailed down the two seed was a Jet win at Oakland, the game which eventually set the epic playoff game with the Raiders at Foxborough and in a driving snowstorm. Other than 2001, the Patriots generally cannot rely on help to improve their playoff position, and in 2008 they saw a remarkable season filled with heroic efforts and yeoman performances from backups go unrewarded in the end.

The Patriots battled the elements in Buffalo on Sunday, and prevailed over Buffalo in one of the more remarkable displays of swirling winds one has ever seen. The swirling wind was so powerful that the goal posts swayed in opposite directions (to clarify, if you stood at the 50-yard line and looked at each goal post, they both swayed to the left). There was a delay prior to a second period Patriot field goal attempt so that stadium workers could level the uprights, but Stephen Gostkowski still watched a 26-yard field goal attempt get windblown to the right. Rian Lindell saw the same from a 47-yard attempt, only this kick went so far to the right it resembled a kick in Soldier Field in Chicago some years back where one kick was actually L-shaped.

The wind was blowing so fiercely from left to right that teams moving into the wind could only run the ball, for the most part. The game became a rushing duel, and the Patriots seemed to catch a break with Marshawn Lynch out of the game due to injury. No such luck, as Fred Jackson gouged the Patriots for 136 yards on 27 carries. But the Bills still managed to get shut out, and the Patriots countered that with 168 team rushing yards (Sammy Morris had 85 yards, LaMont Jordan 64, and Matt Cassel 19).

The Patriots have to figure out what to do about Cassel. On a day made for running backs, he still managed 6 of 8 passing for 78 yards, but had three key runs which kept drives alive, two of them on fourth down. With reports that Tom Brady's rehab is behind schedule, the Patriots may have to do the unthinkable and franchise Cassel. It will be costly, but other than releasing the future Hall of Famer, which is so not happening, there really isn't much the Patriots can do. Right now, the sight of Cassel in another team's uniform (Jets?) would be sickening. The 2008 season will be best remembered for Cassel's development into a bona fide NFL starter, and if the Patriots need him next year and if the rest of the team can stay somewhat healthy, he could be slinging the football in January next year.

Give Bill Parcells credit for bringing the Dolphins back to life one year removed from a horrid season. He brought in rookie head coach Tony Sparano and managed to scoop up Chad Pennington when the Jets thought Favre was a better option at quarterback. In the end the Jets looked foolish as Pennington led the Dolphins to the division title in front of his former fans, and the fancy new Wildcat offense was a nice new innovation for 2008. But whether the Dolphins can score at all against the powerful Ravens defense and whether or not the Dolphin defense can deal with rookie quarterback Joe Flacco is another story, one which will be answered next week in South Florida.

As Parcells is given to say, you are what your record says you are. Both his team and his former team finished 11-5, but the Dolphins win the tiebreaker based on a better conference record. The Dolphins play on, the Patriots go home. That's just the way things go.

The Patriots have really nothing to be ashamed of. Losing Brady after the fifteenth play of the season could have and should have been the instant death knell. If anyone had said following that Kansas City game that the Patriots would go 11-5 without Brady, everyone would have screamed "I'll take it!" louder than the Dolphins must be screaming in their locker room following their division-clinching win.

The Patriots can now settle in, heal up, watch the playoffs and think about 2009, and the ensuing quarterback issue they may be facing. Nothing more anyone can say except "Well done, Patriots."

That goes for Bill Belichick too, who really was a genius in 2008. Some other coach may get Coach of the Year, but Belichick is still the best coach in the business.