FOXBORO, Mass. — Even as Patriots players stood by their locker answering questions and accepting responsibility, the most vivid sound in the locker room after Sunday’s game was the deafening silence of defeat.
There’s no solace found in moral victories in professional sports, especially for the Patriots — a point plenty of players made very clear after Sunday’s loss to the 49ers. That doesn’t mean that those small and seemingly insignificant lessons aren’t vital to a team’s mental makeup. If nothing else, the character the Patriots showed in their 41-34 loss on Sunday night was notable.
Trailing 31-3 midway through the third quarter on Sunday, Tom Brady and the Patriots could very well have thrown in the towel and turned their attention to next week’s visit to Jacksonville. But right in line with the “Patriot Way,” New England fought tooth and nail right until the final whistle.
Brady led four consecutive touchdown drives during a 14-minute stretch between the third and fourth quarter, and the defense held serve, allowing the Patriots to reclaim a share of the lead at 31-31 with just over six minutes left in the game.
The comeback didn’t end with an incredible late-game score, like so many Brady comebacks have before, nor did it end with a win. But while losing ground in the AFC playoff picture, the Patriots may have gained something far more important to their Super Bowl dreams.
“We are never going to quit. It’s obviously not the way we are made,” Rob Ninkovich said with a stern stare after the game. “But even if we pull that one out, it wouldn’t have felt like a true victory because of the way we started the game off. You just can’t start a game like that.”
The way the Patriots started Sunday night’s showdown with arguably the best team in the NFC was downright pitiful. At halftime, they had scored a season-low three points, and their four turnovers on the night only made matters worse. Clearly, there was an underlying issue with their preparation, or maybe it was just overconfidence from coming off a big win over Houston. In any event, the Patriots didn’t show up at the start of the game, but by the time it was all over, the Pats who took the field on Sunday night were completely transformed.
The group of players present inside the Patriots’ locker room after the game had undergone a transformation. Maybe it wasn’t apparent just yet, or they didn’t want to let onto what had just transpired, but even in defeat the Patriots were able to find something only championship-caliber teams possess: the will to win, no matter what.
“I had a feeling we’d be able to come back,” Brady said of his team’s effort. “We hung in there, we battled back from a 28-point deficit, but we just made too many mistakes when we needed to make the plays.”
Mistakes aside — and there were plenty of those — the Patriots showed confidence and toughness in what was undoubtedly their roughest loss of the season. Whether it was through Danny Woodhead‘s spirited two-touchdown performance, Brandon Lloyd‘s 10-catch, 190-yard extravaganza or Brady’s mettle and toughness in enduring hit after hit while still managing to lead his mates back from the depths, the Patriots were resilient.
Coming back from a 28-point deficit to nearly pull out a win doesn’t just happen. It’s not a product of luck or chance. There’s nothing random to that sort of feat. An accomplishment like that is purely a manifestation of focus, persistence and resolve, and each of those are traits that any Super Bowl team must possess.
The Packers saw theirs blossom right here in New England during their Super bowl run in 2010 as they nearly took down the Patriots behind the arm of a backup quarterback in Matt Flynn. And the Giants saw theirs manifest in a loss to the Packers late last season before going on to take down the mighty Patriots in Indianapolis. Maybe Sunday was the Patriots’ moment of truth.
The disappointment of this defeat will continue to linger on the minds of each and every Patriots player, as it so vividly did in the locker room after Sunday’s game. But in the same vein, the Patriots will also remember the relentless attitude that saw them charge all the way back and nearly steal a win. And when the true tests arise on those frigid weekends in January, the perseverance and willpower that the Patriots discovered within themselves on this Sunday night may prove to be the difference.
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