Its too bad the season ends here because the path is clear for the Patriots to become the first three consecutive Super Bowl champion in history. And they were a lot closer to moving to the next step of that quest than the 27-13 final score in their playoff loss to Denver appears. But for a few mistakes here and a few bad breaks there, they win the game and are playing at home Sunday for the AFC Championship against Pittsburgh once again. A game you’d have to like their chances in. But it was not to be.

The Patriots controlled the actual play of most of the game against Denver. They ran the ball decently, until they were behind they had to abandon it. They threw the ball well. On defense, they shut down Denver’s running game and kept the Denver positive aerial plays to a minimum. Heading into halftime, with a 3-0 lead and on their way to more it appeared, disaster struck in the form of a Kevin Faulk turnover just after the two minute warning. This led to a gift Denver touchdown and a subsequent fumble by Ellis Hobbs on the next kickoff gave Denver three more. And thus, a half mostly controlled by the Patriots, a half in which they succeeded in shutting up the Denver crowd, was destroyed with two bad mistakes in less than a minute.

But they regrouped. And they opened up the third quarter dominating that for awhile as well. A field goal on their first drive was followed by a long drive that appeared to be headed for a touchdown. Momentum was the Patriots’ again. They had beat Denver down and were about to wrestle the lead back after gifting it to them earlier. Then it happened. A great player made a great play at a critical time. Top players do that and when Champ Bailey stepped in front of Troy Brown to pick off a Tom Brady pass in the endzone and race 100 yards the other way, a great player stole a game for his team. Its wrong to look at that play and focus on it as a Tom Brady screw up. That misses the point. It wasn’t that so much as it was one of those classic plays to win a game we’ve seen special players do for the Patriots.

We’ve seen Ty Law take passes the other way and steal momentum or a game, including in the Super Bowl. We’ve seen Tom Brady lead his team down on game winning drives to win playoff games. We’ve seen Adam Vinatierri kick the most improbable of field goals in the worst conditions to win games. We’ve seen Tedy Bruschi snatch balls out of thin air to wrap up victories. And we’ve seen Willie McGinest make huge sacks to knock opponents out of field goal range and help preserve wins. This time it was the other team’s great player that did it. It wasn’t a Brady screw up. Sure it wasn’t a good throw. But most corners don’t make that play. It just sails incomplete or maybe gets knocked down. Not Bailey, he stole the ball and the game on the biggest of stages. Give the man credit. It was a super play that literally changed a game that appeared to be headed in one direction and he sent it in the complete opposite direction.

And so the season ends. The other two turnovers only confirmed what the Bailey play had made inevitable. The Patriots had almost done what it took. They had controlled the game. They had dominated on defense. They had overcome early mistakes to wrestle momentum back. They had moved the ball on offense. And then one great player ended their season. It happens. It happens a lot when you let a team you are outplaying hang around, when you don’t secure a bye and home field advantage throughout the season and when you play inconsistently and uncompetitively in too many games too many times in a single season.

Lets face it, the Patriots were due for a playoff performance like this. They played well most of the game Saturday, if you break it down to analyzing each play. But it only takes a few bad plays to kill you against another good team. And the longer you play, its only a matter of time before the turnover bug hits at some point.

Through 10 playoff games, through wind and rain and snow, and against top opponents, the Patriots had only turned the ball over 6 times in three previous postseasons. Saturday, they turned it over 5 times in one night. That happens. The Patriots aren’t machines. It was a matter of time. Every time you take the field, the odds are increasing of a game like that. You try to minimize it and some teams are better than others at doing so. The Patriots were very good at it, particularly at playoff time. But at some point, its going to get you. Which is why securing byes and home field advantage is so important. One less game equals one less chance to just have the breaks go against you. And its not a fluke, especially in a place like Denver. Those things tend to happen in venues like that that are tough on opponents. Its not that surprising, its happened to the Patriots there and other teams as well for years.

And thus, the bye is important. One more home game, where these things don’t happen as often, means one more game where you’re comfortable. Where you usually win. Where the other team may see bad things start snowballing. Hopefully next year, the Patriots can wrap up those advantages in a more consistent regular season.

So where does this team stand now that the season is over? Lets take a look at each of the team’s units:

QUARTERBACKS-Tom Brady certainly had a very fine year this year. Excellent, even by his lofty standards. But I disagree with those who say it was his best year. He simply had too many off games. The Kansas City game. The Carolina game. San Diego he was off. A few other games he was just average. Saturday wasn’t one of his best performances. For my money, he was better in 2003 and that was his best season. He had two stinkers that year. Game one and game four. None afterwards and they didn’t lose again. So, in the end, a great year, but not his best. The backups were Doug Flutie who seemed to play his role quietley and effectively without even a hint of controversy or discontent as had been predicted by many naysayers when he was signed. I think he still has one more year in him as a backup, but it remains to be seen whether he wants it or the Patriots want him back. Matt Cassell was drafted as the third quarterback and got some playing time, displaying much promise both in preseason and the action he got in the regular season. He has all the tools. With a good offseason, he could become a valuable number two guy next season.

RUNNING BACK-Corey Dillon, to me, looked like his old self early in the year. I still can recall that Green Bay exhibition game when there is no doubt in my mind he was running with the same speed, cutting ability and power as last year. He had a couple good games once the regular season started, but by season’s end he was hampered by injuries and definately not the same back. Was it age? Was it injuries? We don’t know. Personally, I suspect injuries based on what I saw before they struck. But he is getting up there in age and while he should be back, its time the Pats look to find his heir apparent and perhaps limit his carried next year while working in a young prospect. The third down back, Kevin Faulk, also battled injuries this year. But when he played, he was generally the effective out of the backfield catcher, occasional runner he’d been before. He’ll be back. Patrick Pass played well most of the time. He’s a solid guy, but not a lead back. He can bring a lot to a team as a blocker, occasional runner and pass catcher, as well as a fine special teams player. He should be back. Heath Evans had a nice couple first few games, but by the end of the year, he appeared nothing more than just a solid backup. I wouldn’t have any problem bringing him back in that role.

WIDE RECEIVER-Deion Branch stayed healthy and continues to improve into a top receiver. He’ll probably never be at the very top as a receiver, but he has top 15 potential if he continues to improve. He is just reaching his best years now. David Givens had a pretty good year, but also suffered some injuries and didn’t have the year he had in 2004. He only found the end zone twice in the regular season and was not nearly as consistent as he had been previously. He is a free agent and may go elsewhere for more money. Andre Davis showed speed and some potential, especially late in the year, but is a free agent who’ll only be back if he agrees to limited money. Troy Brown had a better year than last year and still may have one year left in him as a valuable third down guy. Bethel Johnson, for all his world of potential, just is missing something. Not sure what it is, maybe maturity or work ethic. Its probably time for a change of scenery for him. But he is a second round pick from a few years ago. He has had some production, limited as it is, and some very big plays as a receiver and returner in his career. You’d like to see the Patriots at least wrestle a mid-round pick for a guy his talent if they decide to cut ties. Tim Dwight is a good role player and I’d like to see him return.

TIGHT END-Daniel Graham was hurt much of the year and its too bad. His blocking and occasional pass threat make him a valuable player. His limited effectiveness due to injuries hurt the Patriots. He did have one of the plays of the year with his imposing run down the right sidelines for a TD vs. Atlanta, however. Ben Watson improved as the season went on. He is a dangerous downfield weapon and had a good playoffs. He should only get better and has potential to be a top tight end. He does need to work on his blocking a bit though. Christian Fauria has been an underrated contributor to this team and two Super Bowl wins. He is a Patriot to be proud of. But at age 35 next season and a free agent, its quite possible he’s played his last game as a Patriot. If so, fans should be thankful of his four years of service here.

OFFENSIVE LINE-If you think about it, O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia performed miracles with this unit. Starting two rookies on the left side most of the year, losing your center midway thru and having some missed time at right tackle as well, the unit still pretty much held its own all year. Rookies Nick Kaczur and Logan Mankins got invaluable experience this year, played well and you have to be excited for their future. Russ Hochstein did a very good job filling in for Dan Koppen at center when he went down for the year to injuries. Stephen Neal had a good year at right guard, though I didn’t think quite as dominating as he was down the stretch as a run blocker in 2004. Of this unit, only sometime starter Tom Ashworth and Neal are free agents. Either of them may be back, but even if not, the unit is in good shape and will have the return of left tackle Matt Light and Koppen as well next year.

DEFENSIVE LINE-It was really displayed in full detail this year, above other years, just how dominant Richard Seymour is. He really changes this whole unit. He is that good. At times this year, when he was healthy, it appeared as if the other team just couldn’t block him. At all. And it rubbed off on everyone else. Locking him up long-term, as he is a free agent after next season, should be a priority. If there is any negative to Seymour at all, it is that he does appear to get these nagging injuries just about every year. Every year he seems to miss a couple games and/or be limited in a few others. Its a minor thing, but one wonders if he could put together a full, healthy season, it would not only help the Patriots, but may put him in Defensive MVP of the NFL category. Vince Wilfork struggled early. He came on when Seymour came back. He’s a good player and should get better at his young age. Ty Warren disappointed me this year. I had thought he was a borderline Pro Bowl player in 2004 and he just didn’t play to that level this year. He improved late, but still had an average year overall. Lets hope he reverts to 2004 form next year. Jarvis Green came on a bit late, but he was also slightly disappointing this year. It appears he’ll be a solid role player, but not a great player. Still, you like to have that kind of depth around. Of the rest, Marquise Hill never seemed to show much. It was essentially his rookie year, but one hopes he’ll show great improvement next year. He’ll need to. Rookie Mike Wright got a little bit of play and appears to be a hard-working, mucker type. Much like old Belichick favorite, also with limited talent but good technique and effort, Rick Lyle. He could develop into a solid role player. Dan Klecko showed one brief spark in the first Denver game at end. Beyond that, he didn’t do much. If he has any future, in my opinion its at end, not nose tackle. I’d like to see them try him there. But his chances appear to be running out.

LINEBACKER-This unit really played very well, as good as any unit in the NFL, down the stretch. Roosevelt Colvin became a beast the second half of the year. Mike Vrabel adjusted to his new position inside and played well, as usual. Tedy Bruschi was coming back into his old form, after his off-season stroke, by the end of the year. Willie McGinest remained a force. Monty Beisel struggled as a full-time player, but probably not as badly as the abuse he took from fans and media. Chad Brown did little inside, but late in the year, very late, showed some promise as an outside nickle linebacker. Perhaps he can play that role next year if he’s back. Matt Chatham and Tully Banta-Cain show promise when they play, but with this top-notch group in front of them, don’t get many chances. Chatham is a free agent and some other team may be able to offer him more time. Larry Izzo and Don Davis are solid special teamers and back up players and both should be back. Draft pick Ryan Claridge spent the year on IR. He has talent, he’ll hopefully inject some youth to the backup spots next year.

SECONDARY-This unit was atrocious early on. Losing leader Rodney Harrison to a catastrophic knee injury in week three was part of the problem. Its going to be difficult for him to come back, but I don’t doubt Rodney Harrison on anything when it comes to football. Its funny to think the opening night starters at corner were Ty Poole and Duane Starks. Poole got injured that night and never played again. He’s under contract, but I’d be surprised if he were back. He’s had a good career, but is getting up there in years and its starting to show in his health. He’ll be 34 in February, old for a corner. Starks played about half the year and was extremely disappointing to me. I remember the Baltimore Duane Starks. That kid was a player. He could shut down a receiver, jump routes, create picks. He was really good. I don’t know what has happened to him, but he was a sad shadow of his former self this year. Perhaps it was the bad shoulder, he required surgery after he was finally put on IR, but any expectations for him for next year would be misplaced. Randall Gay, a promising young corner who played a lot in 2004, also missed most of the year. He should be back healthy and that will help.

Late in the year, this unit did turn it around. Rookie Ellis Hobbs came in and played very solid. There is a lot of reason to be optomistic with him. But then again, the Patriots can’t afford to assume his good rookie year will translate into a productive second year. Just look at Randall Gay. At the other corner, Asante Samuel was the mainstay. He struggled at times, but overall I thought he had a good year and made more plays than any other corner. He’s a good player. Hank Poteat always had a lot of talent. It just never showed itself elsewhere, primarily in Pittsburgh. But this system in New England seems to suit him and he played well as a nickle back. He’d be good to bring back. Safety Eugene Wilson got off to a bad start. He seemed lost for several weeks when Harrison went down. But by the end of the year, I thought he really lifted his play back to its former borderline Pro Bowl level. At the other safety, cornerback Artrell Hawkins was signed off the street at midseason and did a nice job learning safety on the fly. He’d be a good depth player to bring back. Rookie James Sanders seemed to improve as the year went on. He came out as an underclassman in last year’s draft. With a good offseason, he has a chance to really develop into a good player. The other young safety, Guss Scott, didn’t show too much when he played and is now facing a second knee surgery in two years. His future is in doubt. Michael Stone is depth and a good special teams player, but probably won’t be back

KICKERS-Adam Vinatierri is probably the best kicker in the league. Or at least the kicker you’d most want in New England late in the year, given the weather. He’s a free agent. The Patriots will surely try hard to keep this probable future Hall of Famer. Punter Josh Miller had a good year, though he did falter a little late in the year after a great early season. Still, it was probably the best season by a Patriots punter in decades.

Overall, the future remains bright. It was somewhat of a transition year, but they came through it such that, a break or two the other way and they just may have three-peated. I remain convinced the run isn’t over. They’ll be back and probably better next year. They’ll need to be. I already can’t wait until the opener.

Well, that wraps up GDRV for the 2005-2006 season. We’ll be back on occasion this offseason as developments, such as the draft or free agency moves, warrant. Until then, thanks for reading.