FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -The New England Patriots' season began with the shock of Tom Brady's knee injury and ended with more bad news: no playoff berth despite an 11-5 record.
Surrounded by the odd sight of empty lockers before New Year's Day, some players found it very strange that their playoff run ended at five straight seasons.
``If you would normally tell me you're sitting at 11-5 and winning your last game and be going home, I'd think you'd be talking crazy,'' cornerback Ellis Hobbs said Monday, ``but that's the case.''
Others simply acknowledged that a season-ending four-game winning streak in which the Patriots outscored opponents 133-54 couldn't keep them from becoming just the second team in 31 seasons of the 16-game schedule to miss the playoffs at 11-5.
ionship teams this decade.
And if they had reached the playoffs?
``I felt like we were hitting the right stride at the right time,'' defensive end Richard Seymour said. ``I felt like we could have done damage. But, hopefully, that will leave some room for improvement next season.''
Decimated by injuries to key players but boosted by the play of replacements, especially quarterback Matt Cassel, New England tied Miami for first place. They split their two meetings and had the same division record, but the Dolphins won the AFC East on the third tiebreaker, conference record.
The early exit came a season after the Patriots lost the chance for a perfect 19-0 record on a last-minute touchdown by the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.
Now they have plenty of time to rest up.
``If you guys haven't figured out by now that there's not much correlation from one year to the next, then I don't know what it would take,'' coach Bill Belichick told reporters. ``We've seen that time and time and time again.''
Seven of this season's 12 playoff teams did not get in last season.
er rookies - linebacker Gary Guyton and cornerbacks Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley - played well and provide much-needed youth for the defensive core.
Wes Welker had another brilliant season with 111 catches after getting 112 in 2007. Randy Moss finished with just 69 receptions but 11 touchdowns.
New England could lose vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, who helped put together the three championship teams, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to Cleveland. The Browns have received permission to speak with Pioli, and owner Randy Lerner said McDaniels is on his list of candidates to succeed the fired Romeo Crennel.
Cassel also may leave after a season he described as a ``blur.''
He proved he could lead a team when he stepped in after Brady suffered a season-ending injury midway through the first quarter of the first game. Now he can become a free agent.
The Patriots can prevent that by putting a franchise tag on him for one year at a cost of the average salary of the top five paid quarterbacks, especially if they have concerns Brady might not be ready for next season. But that would require spending a ton of money on one position, although they also could trade Cassel if they do make him their franchise player.
Cassel doesn't know what will happen.
o we're going to move forward and well see how it all comes about,'' he said.
Cassel hadn't started a game in seven seasons - four at Southern California and three in New England - and struggled while taking most of the snaps in the exhibition season. When Brady went down, so did the hopes of Patriots fans.
``I think a lot of people wrote us off 10 minutes into the first game of the season,'' Seymour said. ``Cassel was written off in the preseason and I just think it was a team that always found a way to win.''
Not always.
Had they not lost to Indianapolis 18-15 on a fourth-quarter field goal or to the New York Jets 34-31 in overtime, the Patriots would be in the playoffs.
Not even Sunday's 13-0 win at windy Buffalo could save the Patriots, who needed the Jets to beat the Dolphins or Jacksonville to beat Baltimore to advance.
``As short as the flight was home, I replayed pretty much every play in my head that I could have done better,'' Hobbs said. ``There were plays out there that were the difference (between) an 11-5 season or could have been worse or better.''
The loss to the Jets dropped the Patriots to 6-4. They couldn't stop Brett Favre from leading the winning 14-play drive in overtime.
tsburgh 33-10. The Patriots won at Seattle and Oakland and returned home to rout playoff-bound Arizona 47-7 with three more scoring passes by Cassel.
``This is a satisfying season for me,'' he said. ``I proved a lot to myself and to a lot of others.''
But now that season is over. The players are headed home more than a month before the Super Bowl.
``It's tough,'' Vrabel said. ``You try to think that it's a pretty positive ending to a season, a good finish. You finish 11-5 and then you come in here and you realize that you're cleaning your locker out.''

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