The Patriots have no one to blame but themselves for missing the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
Even after taking care of their own business by beating Buffalo 13-0 in Sunday's season finale, the Patriots wound up on the outside looking in because the Dolphins and Ravens each won their games. What hurt the most was the fact that the Jets of all teams -- New England's biggest rival for the past decade -- hurt the Patriots by not being able to beat Miami at the Meadowlands.
The Patriots are the first 11-5 team to not make the postseason since the 1985 Broncos, yet this has more to do with what New England failed to accomplish, not who failed to help out on the final Sunday of the season.
The Patriots lost out on all the tiebreakers due to their 7-5 conference record. The Ravens, who grabbed the final wild-card spot at 11-5, and the Dolphins, who won the AFC East with the same record, each finished 8-4 against AFC opponents.
While they watch the playoffs from home, the Patriots can look back at any one of three crucial losses against AFC foes that may have cost them a postseason berth. They got blown out at San Diego on Oct. 12, lost a close game at Indianapolis on Nov. 2 and then got hammered at home by Pittsburgh on Nov. 30. Losses to the Jets and Dolphins didn't help either, but it's nearly impossible to go undefeated in the AFC East. Those losses to teams from other divisions hurt the most.
"You think about all the opportunities we let slip away -- the New York Jets, having those guys third-and-15, and letting them get the first down; Pittsburgh, giving up the ball so many times; and Indianapolis, those are the things we're going to look at," cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. "Sure, we did our part ... but you look back at situations like that, and say, 'Man, we let some opportunities slip away."
The 8-8 Chargers will be hosting a playoff game against 12-4 Indianapolis because they won their division while the Colts had to settle for a wild-card berth. Meanwhile, the 11-5 Patriots are at home watching. Unfair? The Patriots can't complain, as they lost to those same Chargers in October.
"This is the way the system is set up," running back Heath Evans said. "People complain about the BCS, too. I don't think there's going to be a cure-all. You're going to have different division winners with different records. That's just the game we play."
The Patriots may also look back at their loss to the Jets at home on Nov. 13 in which Brett Favre -- the same Favre who threw three interceptions Sunday against the Dolphins -- engineered the go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter and the game-winning drive in overtime.
What they can't do is blame anyone else for their misfortune, which they wisely refused to do once they returned home from Buffalo on Sunday. Having already learned their playoff fate, the Patriots instead focused on what they accomplished against all odds. No matter how you slice, 11-5 is still pretty good in the NFL.
"I think the players gave us all they had. I respect this group of guys immensely," coach Bill Belichick said. "They've worked hard, they've put up with me all year, and they fought through a lot of adversity. ... Mentally and physically, they're a tough football team."
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