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Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: We'll see if loss was a lesson learned
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady watches from the sideline as the 49ers build a lead in the second quarter of Sunday night's game. (USA TODAY Sports)
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- STANDING before his stall early Monday morning, Rob Ninkovich shared the sentiments voiced by many of the teammates who'd already cleared out of a near-empty Patriots' locker room: He wasn't interested in claiming a moral victory.
Certainly it said something about his club's character that it rallied to erase a 28-point deficit against the NFL's No. 1 defense, though the end result was nevertheless a 41-34 loss to San Francisco, and thus New England had failed what most considered its toughest test of the season. Ninkovich knew full well why his team had flunked - "You can't play like we played tonight; it's just not good football" - and so believed that his team got the loss it deserved that he said it "wouldn't have felt like a true victory" even if the scoreboard had gifted it to them in the end.
But the defensive end did still hold hope that Sunday's journey through the peaks and valleys will eventually prove a positive.
"I think this is a good lesson for us," he said. "I'd rather take it now than down the road."
And fortunately for the Patriots, recent history suggests there may actually be no better time for them to be so humbly taught.
The timing of Sunday's setback was so abnormal that only 15 current players had ever experienced a second-half-of-the-season loss as a Patriot, and Ninkovich - who's in his third season as a starter - was merely a special teams guy when it last happened, back in 2009. Around these parts that remarkable record during November and December has become the most oft-cited evidence that Bill Belichick's team improves as the year goes on, and plays its best when the games increase in importance.
However, it hasn't exactly helped them meet the title-or-bust expectations such success creates for January and February. And that's where the Patriots hope Sunday was indeed a lesson - because it's one the last eight Super Bowl champions all have learned at right around this point of the football calendar.
The 2003 Pats famously finished the regular season by winning 12 in a row, though since then no eventual champion has entered the postseason with a winning streak longer than four games, and since 2006 no hardware hoister has even started the playoffs riding the momentum of more than two straight triumphs.
Instead, every one of them has experienced a hiccup sometime around the holidays, with each of the octet losing at some point after Week 13 - and typically in some ugly, unforeseen fashion. The confetti shower tends to cleanse our collective memory, but don't forget that the '04 Patriots lost at Miami in Week 15, surrendering what was a 28-17 lead with 4:06 to play, and losing 29-28 while Tom Brady threw four interceptions.
The '05 Steelers lost their third straight in Week 13, the last coming courtesy of four giveaways. The '06 Colts spent Week 14 getting slaughtered by Jacksonville, 44-17, while yielding 375 yards rushing. The '07 Giants lost to the Redskins, 22-10, in Week 15, when Eli Manning completed only 18 of 53 pass attempts.
The '08 Steelers were doomed by four turnovers in Week 16, letting a 14-10 second-half lead become a 31-14 defeat to the Titans. The '09 Saints were undefeated before falling to the Cowboys in a Week 15 contest they trailed 24-3 in the fourth quarter. The '10 Packers fell in both Weeks 14 and 15, losing Aaron Rodgers to a concussion.
Then the '11 Giants were beaten for the fourth time in five games during Week 15, losing to Rex Grossman and then-hapless Washington when Manning's three picks left his team down 23-3 until a garbage-time touchdown with 37 seconds left.
And New England fans need no reminder about how that campaign wound up for New York.
If Patriots fans are panicking about what happened Sunday, when their club coughed up the ball four times, take comfort in knowing that almost all of those eight late losses were largely a product of uncharacteristic (though not foretelling) inattention to the football. And that five of the eight suffered a dud in Week 15, like the Pats did. Thus, all is not lost; in fact, nothing is lost, except perhaps a chance at a bye - and even then, the past two titlists have played in the wild-card round en route to a ring.
So the most popular postgame question of what to take away from the loss to San Francisco was really pointless. It doesn't matter whether the Pats come away discouraged because of the way they fell behind, or with their confidence intact because of the way they came back.
All that's relevant is how they respond from here, because there's eight years of evidence saying Sunday can be not simply the end of a seven-game winning streak, but rather the start of something really special - if the Pats don't fall for the silly notions of moral victories or value a just-shy comeback, and instead take it as the teachable moment their leaders appear to believe it is.
"We just didn't give ourselves a chance," Brady said. "We spotted them 28 points. We fought hard, but you can't play poorly against a good team and expect to win."
"The way we played, we can't beat anybody," added Vince Wilfork. "We basically blew off a half and it cost us big time. ... Tonight we just weren't the Patriots."
Super Bowl XLVII will be Feb. 3. Call it report card day in New England - because by then we'll know if those Patriots have truly learned their lesson.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.