INDIANAPOLIS — The first tweet from New England Patriots wide receiver Chad Ochocinco on The Morning After was simple: “I love you all.”

And maybe that’s what we need to take from the Patriots latest Super Bowl failure. Because in the end, we can dissect the Patriots 21-17 last-minute loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium, put the blame on someone (as Tom Brady’s wife, Gisele Bundchen apparently has) and have that sick feeling in our stomach for weeks.

Or, we can remember that this was a team that, remarkably, advanced to its fifth Super Bowl in 11 years.

The Patriots were not a great team this year, at least talent-wise and statistically. Their defense was often manned by cast-offs or unsigned free agents. Their statistics were mind-boggling bad for a Bill Belichick team.

And yet, the Patriots were here again.

Yes, the loss stings for both fans and players.

Stepping into the Patriots locker room 20 minutes after the loss, it quickly became obvious how devastated the Patriots were.

Players struggled to find words, speaking in whispers. Players looked the other way when reporters approached. Aaron Hernandez, the second-year tight end who caught eight passes, one for a touchdown, had just one word to say: “Speechless.”

Tom Brady stood, towel over his head, in front of his locker, unmoving.

Logan Mankins, the feisty left guard, talked for everyone when he said, “I’ve lost a lot of games in my career, but nothing hurts like losing the Super Bowl … There’s not a lot to be said when you lose a game of this magnitude.”

Deion Branch, who couldn’t hold on to a key pass on the final drive, sat in front of his locker, staring at the floor, shaking his head.

“I mean, it’s tough man,” he said. “Especially when we didn’t play good ball and still had the chance to win the game.”

Throughout the year, Belichick said the defining characteristic of this team was its hard work and ability to fight through obstacles.

After the loss, he reiterated that effort was not an issue.

“I’ll say pretty much the same thing about everybody,” he said, when asked specifically about back Danny Woodhead. “They competed hard, played well and came up a couple of plays short. That’s a good football team.

“They made a couple more plays that we did. I don’t think there was any area of our team that didn’t compete well, that wasn’t competitive with them. We ended up a couple of plays short.”

Asked how much respect he has for his team, Belichick said, “I’m proud to be coach of this team, proud of the way they fought and performed all year.”

As he, and all Patriots fans should be. The Patriots exceeded all expectations and that, of course, is why the loss hurt so much.

“We all hate to lose,” said Brady. “We fight as hard as we can and sometimes you get beat. I’m proud of our team for the way that we hung in there all season.”

Of course, by now the Patriots are already looking at next year. They have 20 free agents on their team and must decide which ones they want back.

Among them are wide receivers Wes Welker — who seemed to personally take responsibility with the loss, his inability to catch an over-thrown Brady pass late in the fourth quarter looming as a huge play — and Branch. Both have said they want to return — Branch wants to retire as a Patriot — and both should.

Also defensive ends Mark Anderson and Andre Carter, who missed the last month with an injury. They led the team in sacks this year.

Both centers, Dan Koppen (who is injured often lately) and Dan Connolly are free agents, as are running backs Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

They have obvious needs: A deep-threat wide receiver, defensive backs, a pass rusher.

They need to get faster. They need to get deeper.

The coaches know this, the players know this.

“We have a great team, a great young team,” said Branch. “We will have to see what happens. That’s the coaches’ job, to sit down and dissect and get this team back into order. Once we get into our off-season program, mini-camps, training camp, it’s time to start developing.”

And, said Brady, maybe make another championship run.

“I hope we do get back here,” he said. “I’ve been lucky enough to play in this game five times. I’d love to keep coming back to this game and taking a shot. It’s better than sitting home and not playing in this game.”


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