FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Ninety minutes after another far-fetched fizzle in Gillette Stadium, the notoriously hellacious traffic along Route 1 failed to achieve total hellaciousness. It boasted delays but not stationary hell. It forsook its reputation.
Maybe it got a head start.
It did seem mildly baffling when the first trickle of Patriots fans began filing out with a fat 6:57 still left and a great quarterback still employed, just after Tom Brady backed up from the Baltimore 24-yard line, Pernell McPhee tipped his pass into the sky over the middle and Dannell Ellerbe intercepted. Yet maybe these people weren't rash. Maybe they weren't pessimistic.
Maybe they've learned the drill.
We have a new paradigm at the glistening 11-year-old stadium in southeastern Massachusetts, a paradigm unforeseeable back when Bill Belichick became the symbol of competence and the Patriots became the envied and resented dynasty. Oddly, it's the place where the mighty Patriots can't access their standard and can't hold their seedings.
One home playoff drubbing by Baltimore in early 2010 could be a one-off. Two home playoff drubbings by early 2011 after that monstrosity against the Jets don’t quite make a trend. Three home playoff drubbings across four Januarys, and we have a thing. We have a home-hex thing. We have a gathering collection of deflations thorough enough that it features one from each of the three pre-Super Bowl playoff rungs.
We have a paradigm where we're going to have to stop revering the Patriots just because we're used to revering the Patriots. We're going to have to stop succumbing to glamour.
"They're a lot better-looking than us, especially No. 12, good-looking guy," said Terrell Suggs, Baltimore's loquacious linebacker. Chiding a national-TV reporter for a pre-game prediction, Suggs barked across the merry locker room, "You picked the great 12? I know you did! I know you had him picked!"
"The great 12" referred to Brady, of course, but the catchy phrase -- and I can't believe I'm typing this -- no longer applies in the playoffs. Brady had a 96.2 quarterback rating in 2009 and a 49.1 rating in a 33-14 home loss to Baltimore in the wild-card round. He had a towering 111.0 in 2010 and an 89.0 in a still-bewildering 28-21 home loss to the New York Jets in the divisional round. He had a 98.7 in 2012 and a 62.3 while looking clunky in a thorough 28-13 home loss to the superior Ravens in the AFC Championship.
In those three seasons, he had 98 touchdown passes and 25 interceptions. In those three losses, he had five touchdown passes and six interceptions. Even when he brought an interception-free streak of 335 passes to that match with the Jets, he managed a momentum-reversing interception with a 58-yard return on the first possession. Where once we saw his magical winter smile beneath confetti, now we see his gutted countenance beneath premature elimination. "It always comes to a screeching halt," Brady said Sunday, and by now the word "always" applies.
By now we have a 24-0 first-quarter deficit (Baltimore, January 2010), a loss to a team New England had beaten 45-3 some 41 days prior (Jets, January 2011), a league-leading team in scoring dispensing a scoreless second half (Baltimore, January 2013). And the only major breach in this Gillette trend was a very, very shaky AFC Championship Game (Baltimore, January 2012), trading on a dropped touchdown pass that would have won the game for Baltimore and a botched 32-yard field goal that would have tied it.
It's bizarre. The NFL has had teams with a knack for getting stuck in the playoffs (the Los Angeles Rams in the 1970s, the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2000s come to mind), but it hasn't had one hit this patch of a dynasty with the same coach, the same quarterback, the same system and the same regular-season dominance. It's counterintuitive. When do big-game coaches and big-game quarterbacks ever stop being big-game coaches and big-game quarterbacks other than by aging to decrepitude, which neither has?
It's the kind of thing that makes you start gazing back across a 12-4 season, seeking clues. Was the schedule too soft?
Undoubtedly, by Jan. 20, a Ravens team deeply troubled as recently as Dec. 16 seemed clearly, significantly better than its host. It helped itself to drives of 90 and 87 yards. Quarterback Joe Flacco soared to more money for that new contract even if, anymore, a negotiating general manager might say, "Well, beating the Patriots at Gillette in the playoffs isn't exactly unique." Patriot-minded people noted astutely that a first-quarter injury to cornerback Aqib Talib did not help, and surely the absence of tight end Rob Gronkowski wasn't ideal, but did we really think of this team as a team that couldn't surpass such?
We did not, because we don't see Brady as somebody prone to the dying-bird passes that filled Sunday evening. It's still a bit jarring to see passes hit the ground before their targets, passes thrown behind receivers, that pitiful fourth-down thing in the fourth-quarter that just kind of went onto the end-zone floor and croaked. We've never seen him as somebody who would look outdated as he suddenly did when lumbering into a referee or scrambling feebly just inside the 10-yard line just before halftime. And while we're on the subject of that possession, we've never thought of the guy who directed the Patriots through the Rams in the Superdome as a suspect big-game clock manager, but after suspect clock management both in the Jets game and on Sunday, maybe we should start.
Maybe some fans, in their honest thoughts, already have started. Maybe they helped with the traffic.