Yesterday afternoon, I dug through the archives looking for an "old" game to watch. I chose the December 24, 2006 game in Jacksonville and took a good look at it. In the game's intro, Gumbel and Dierdorf discussed how important the game was for both teams. The Jags were 8-6 and desperately needed a win to stay in playoff contention. The Patriots had yet to even clinch a playoff berth, and Gumbel mentioned how Belichick urged his players not to be overconfident and allow themselves to back into the playoffs. The Pats, despite giving up that boneheaded Jones-Drew miracle TD run, were able to win, 24-21 to clinch the AFC East. Though they had destroyed the Texans the week before, they had been shutout in Miami before that, and barely beat the Lions prior to that. If they had won in Miami, they would have most likely leapfrogged the Colts for the 3rd seed, and probably have played the AFC Championship at home in January. Yet, in Week 16, we knew none of that. In fact, that same week, Ron Dayne had thrashed through the Colts' defense to open up a 14-0 Texans lead. During halftime, Dan Marino used yet another example of the Colts' terrible run defense that year to support why "The Colts would not win the Super Bowl." Well, he was wrong. During the regular season, the Colts were dead last in rushing defense. In fact, the 31st team, the Rams, had 40 less yards/game than the Colts' 173. They began the season with 110 yards to Tiki Barber, and ended it with 115 to Ronnie Brown. In the playoffs, something changed. Some say it was Booger McFarland finally turning it on. Others credit Bob Sanders. No matter what, the Colts held Larry Johnson to 32 yards. Jamal Lewis to 53 yards. Corey Dillon to 48 yards. Thomas Jones had 112 in the Super Bowl, but even that was less than 65% of the Colts' season average (The Bears had 111 net rushing, too). The Colts went 12-4, had a horrendous rushing defense, but turned things around when it really mattered. Or, let's go back one more season - another year in which the Pats fell short in the playoffs. The 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers. A #6 seed. Losers to the Patriots, Jaguars, Ravens, Colts, and Bengals. However, 4 of those 5 teams ended up in the playoffs. And of those teams, all (perhaps not the Jaguars) were considered to be better teams than the Steelers. The Steelers finished the season with four straight wins, including a 41-0 thumping of the Browns. Nobody here wanted to play them. The Pats threw their final game of the season in order to achieve that, too. Then, the Steelers went on to knock off the high-flying Bengals, the media darlings, the Broncos, and the Seahawks. Champions of the National Football League. There's only one. How about the 2007 New York Giants? Losses to Dallas and Green Bay to open the season. Another loss to the Cowboys. A 24-point loss to the Vikings in late November. A loss to the Redskins. A loss to the Patriots. In this case, you have a 10-6 team who again only lost to one non-playoff team. They go into the playoffs and shock the world, beating the Buccaneers, Cowboys, Packers, and as we know, the Patriots. The 2007 season is over. The 16-0 Patriots will never be champions. The Giants will always remember this season. Belichick preaches better performance down the stretch. Did anyone think the post-Thanksgiving (or post-bye) Patriots were as good as their out-the-gate version? They lost Morris and Colvin, sure. You throw in Faulk and Seau and you're in good shape. That wasn't the problem. Even Vrabel said the 2007 Patriots didn't follow the classical model of improving late in the season. They didn't improve. They were still winning football games, but just coasting to the finish. Don't believe me? Let's chart the season: Weeks 1-11, NYJ to BUF Offensive rushing yards: 131.8 Offensive passing yards: 295.0 Offensive 3rd down conversion rate: 50.7 Offensive interceptions: .4 Offensive sacks: 1.0 Defensive rushing yards: 89.3 Defensive passing yards: 181.3 Defensive 3rd down conversion rate: 29.8 Defensive interceptions: 1.3 Defensive sacks: 2.9 Scoring margin: 25.4 Now, notice how all numbers are across the board (except defensive sacks) worse later on, some more than others: Weeks 12-17, PHI to NYG Offensive rushing yards: 88.5 Offensive passing yards: 280.2 Offensive 3rd down conversion rate: 41.2 Offensive interceptions: .7 Offensive sacks: 1.8 Defensive rushing yards: 113.2 Defensive passing yards: 204.7 Defensive 3rd down conversion rate: 38.2 Defensive interceptions: .8 Defensive sacks: 3.0 Scoring margin: 10.2 And it's tough to make an argument for the second half schedule being harder, considering the end of season winning percentages for the 12-17 games were .400, and the 1-11 games a .510. Or how about the playoffs? Some of these numbers are worse too: Weeks 19-21, JAC to NYG Offensive rushing yards: 113.0 Offensive passing yards: 228.3 Offensive 3rd down conversion rate: 54.3 Offensive interceptions: 1.0 Offensive sacks: 2.7 Defensive rushing yards: 91.7 Defensive passing yards: 241.3 Defensive 3rd down conversion rate: 38.3 Defensive interceptions: 1.3 Defensive sacks: 1.7 Scoring margin: 5.7 Certainly not the Belichick way. Notice how the offensive sacks increase throughout the season, and how the rushing numbers decrease. I think we all saw this. The offensive line did get worse as the year went on. Or how about the defensive passing yards? That secondary, as we remember, was making A.J. Feeley, Kyle Boller, and Eli Manning look like Hall of Famers. This is also made evident in the spike of the defensive 3rd down conversion rate. They couldn't get off the field. However, what's most noticeable is the scoring margin, especially in terms of the quality of opponents. Something wasn't right after the Eagles and Ravens came that close to beating the Patriots. Something wasn't right after a blocked punt was the difference against Mangini's Jets. The elements can certainly be blamed, sure. I personally think it was complacency. Arrogance. Belichick tried hard to keep that out of his team's mind. Did it work? All I know is that, even after wins down the stretch, I walked away from games with an uneasy sense that not finishing strong would come back to hurt them. The Patriots' playoff wins were unspectacular and featured such things as Dennis Northcutt dropping an easy touchdown and Tom Brady throwing two easy interceptions to the Chargers. Something didn't seem right. Perhaps fittingly, it all came crashing down two weeks later. Nothing can change what happened that night. All the Patriots can do is try to not make the same mistakes twice. Welcome to 2008.