If the Patriots are stopped shy of another Lombardi Trophy this season, I could likely write the obituary now.
It would go something like this:
The 2012 Patriots season came to a close today because the saving grace for their defense, turnovers, once again dried up in the biggest spot. The game was close, coming right down to the final drive, but ultimately the Patriots defense couldn't grab that one last interception, or force that one last fumble, the things that had bailed them out of trouble for most of the season.
The one thing that could stop the Patriots from the getting No. 4?
Easy. Failing to get turnovers in the playoffs.
Now we've touched on turnovers frequently in recent weeks, especially their newfound propensity for forcing fumbles over interceptions, but really, it's just that simple.
The Patriots are not without their faults, but week in and week out, year in and year out, they win most of their games. But when they lose, it almost always looks the same.
Now there's no question teams get up for the Patriots, and often put together some of the best performances of their careers. See Mark Sanchez in the 2010 playoff game.
Still, the Patriots require you put together 60 minutes of well-game planned and nearly mistake-free football. It sounds easy, but the majority of the NFL cannot execute on that level. At least not for an entire game.
The Giants have done it twice on the biggest stage of all, and how? They didn't kill themselves with a turnover that turned the tide, and they flawlessly executed in crunch time.
We can talk about the Welker non-catch, but the most glaring thing about that loss to me were the two Giants fumbles that the Patriots could not recover.
Making those plays are what the Patriots must do in January and February if they want to raise the shiny silver football for a fourth time.
Young Defense Looking for Clutch
The Patriots do have one of the youngest defenses in the NFL since overturning it from the dynasty defense starting in 2008, and it's clear that they're still looking for that playoff clutch that comes with veteran experience and savvy.
Who can forget Tedy Bruschi simply tearing the ball out of Dominic Rhodes' arms in the 2004 playoff game against the Colts? Or Ty Law picking off Peyton Manning three times in the 2003 AFC Championship?
It's plays like those that win championships, but they've been noticeably absent in recent years.
As you can see, the Patriots have always been an above-average turnover team compared to the rest of the NFL. And recently in the regular season, they've been even better.
But in the playoffs, they're a full turnover below the NFL average, and nearly a turnover and a half below their own regular-season average. That's a huge drop off.
There were signs of life in last year's Super Bowl run, and that's the only reason they got past the Ravens.
Without Brandon Spikes' interception and Sterling Moore's miraculous pass break-up, the Ravens wouldn't have had to worry about botching that last field goal. The game would've already been over.
Defense Must Translate Turnovers into the Postseason
The Patriots defense has proven time and again over the past three seasons that they can get a lot of turnovers in the regular season. And lately, their growing attitude has even helped them to develop a ferocity for forcing fumbles, which is a new twist for them.
But for this team to avoid another close defeat in the postseason, they must translate those turnovers to when the team's season is on the line.
As we've seen over the past three seasons, when they do that, they're nearly unbeatable.
But forcing turnovers against the best teams in the NFL on the biggest stages is the true test for a defense.
If they allow the turnovers to dry up yet again, it will just be another season of the confetti falling on someone other than Belichick, Brady and the Pats.
Mike Dussault is a New England Patriots Featured Columnist and also edits PatsPropaganda.com. He co-hosts the PatsPropaganda & Frenz podcast with AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz. You can follow him on Twitter here.