FOXBOROUGH, Mass. &
Back on friendly turf, Bill Belichick got off the bus that returned him to Gillette Stadium and headed straight for the screaming fans.
The Patriots coach shook hands, exchanged high fives and pushed aside one of more than a dozen cameramen who had rushed him &
like Giants defenders besieging Tom Brady &
and blocked his path on a chilly Monday night.
"Thank you, Coach!" one fan shouted as Belichick walked up and down the line of about 200 greeters, a serious look on his face for most of his journey.
The Patriots diehards were thrilled to see him and his players and unshaken by the imperfect end to what had been a perfect season &
a stunning 17-14 Super Bowl upset by the New York Giants that ended New England's season at 18-1 far from home in Glendale, Ariz., on Sunday night.
"It was kind of sad at first," said Stephanie Bare, 14, of Millis, "but I still have respect for the other team."
And plenty of love for her Patriots, as shown in the message on her hand-drawn poster: "Be proud of what you've done ... We are."
The sting of the loss doesn't fade that easily. Not after the Patriots were heavy favorites to beat the Giants and become the only team other than the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who were 17-0, to go undefeated from the first game of the regular season to the last one of the post season.
Belichick and Brady have been together for four Super Bowls, all decided by three points. The Patriots won the first three but haven't won any of the last three titles.
"We usually are on the better side of those three-point wins," Brady said. "We just have to regroup and come back and try to make it stronger next year."
Brady was not among the some 30 players who returned to Foxborough after flying back from the game. Nor was he headed to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl on Sunday. He and wide receiver Randy Moss chose not to go because of ankle injuries, Patriots spokesman Stacey James said. Six other Patriots picked for Sunday's game did make the trip.
Three of them &
Matt Light, Logan Mankins and Dan Koppen &
were from the offensive line that had been solid all season but surprisingly porous against the Giants' outstanding pass rush. Brady was sacked five times, the most in 92 games since Sept. 21, 2003 against the New York Jets.
But there were signs during the second half of the season that the Patriots were vulnerable.
Brady's five worst passer ratings came in the last eight games. New England's first eight wins were by at least 17 points each. Only four of its last 10 victories were by more than 10.
The Patriots beat Indianapolis 24-20 on a touchdown with 3:15 left and Philadelphia 31-28 on a touchdown with 7:20 remaining. They edged Baltimore 27-24 on a touchdown with 44 seconds to go, and in the regular-season finale, they beat the Giants 38-35.
They took the lead too early in the Super Bowl, going ahead 14-10 on Brady's 6-yard pass to Moss with 2:42 to go. That left Eli Manning enough time to lead an 83-yard march and throw the decisive 13-yard scoring pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds remaining.
"I'm sure we all could have done things better, but it's just part of competition," Brady said.
He wants Moss back next season, but the receiver can become a free agent.
"I would love to be in a New England Patriots uniform," he said, "but, if not, the show must go on."
Star cornerback Asante Samuel also could leave as a free agent after the Patriots designated him as their franchise player when he held out for a long-term contract before the season.
Their three oldest defensive starters also could be gone. Linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau and safety Rodney Harrison all could retire.
Bruschi already has three Super Bowl rings with the Patriots. A fourth would have meant more, capping an unbeaten season and supporting the argument that they're the best team ever.
That took a big hit Sunday.
"It's not even worth talking about it now because it's over. It didn't happen," Bruschi said. "We can look back on this year with a positive attitude and some of the things we accomplished. But when you don't finish, I mean, that's all we're about."
The next night in Foxborough, cornerback Ellis Hobbs, who was beaten on Burress' winning touchdown, signed autographs. So did Adalius Thomas, Benjamin Watson and about five other players who greeted the screaming fans.
One of them drove 60 miles to be there.
"I was driving home from work and decided this is where I wanted to be," said Mike Beauregard, 44, of Haverhill. "I was down all day and when I heard they were going to be coming in, I just said., 'This is something I've never done.'
"I go to the parades every time they win."
This time, the Patriots overcame Harrison's four-game suspension to start the season for violating the league's substance abuse policy. They were fired up after being punished for videotaping Jets' coaches in the opener. And they bristled at suggestions they were running up the score.
But, in the most important game, they failed.
So fans had to settle for handshakes from Belichick and his players on a cold night outside an empty stadium.
The parade will have to wait.
Patriots return to cheering fans; top receiver Moss says he'd like to return
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. &