FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Lose a Super Bowl in devastating, heartbreaking fashion, and it can dramatically alter the trajectory of a football franchise. Just ask, most recently, the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons.
How the New England Patriots avoided a similar fate is a testament to their organizational resilience, and a timely topic to highlight leading up to Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS). It is the first matchup between the Patriots and Eagles since Super Bowl LII, when cornerback Malcolm Butler was benched, Eagles coach Doug Pederson unleashed the "Philly Special" and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw for 505 yards in the 41-33 loss.
The aftermath of that game sparked questions that perhaps coach Bill Belichick, who still hasn't detailed his thought process on the Butler decision, would lose the New England locker room. The coach who often talks about making decisions that are in the best interest of the team didn't seem to do that -- on the biggest stage, no less.
Yet what seemed like an enormous black cloud hovering over the franchise quickly passed, and 21 months later the skies remain clear, with a forecast that once again includes a strong possibility of red, white and blue confetti falling in early February.
The first step in getting to that point, according to players, was acknowledging the pain of what had unfolded.
"There were conversations that were had the beginning of that offseason, about trying to find a way to pick ourselves up and continue on, to maintain belief in one another, to maintain belief in our process," said longtime captain Matthew Slater, one of the spiritual leaders in the Patriots' locker room.
"There is a time to be upset when you lose a game like that. And there is a time to heal and grow and move on. We did that at the beginning of the offseason. ... We said, 'Hey, all right, that's it, we can't let it affect us moving forward. This is a new year. This is a new team. We have to pick ourselves up off the canvas.'"
It's one thing to have those conversations and another to put them into action. Safety Devin McCourty, who has been a captain since his second year with the franchise in 2011, said that the history of what the organization had been through before helped.
"There's no difference of winning and losing the Super Bowl to me, as far as you have to turn the page. Orlando Scandrick came out and said that about the Eagles -- true or not, it doesn't look like it's true to me -- that they haven't gotten over the Super Bowl win. Then if you lose, it's, 'Oh, they never got past losing in the Super Bowl.' To me, it's the same thing. You have to be able to move on and play.
"This team has understood that, being on both sides of it. Whether you win or lose, you have to understand when you come back the next year, it's a new team. I don't think your rallying cry can be, 'We need to do better because we lost last year.' Or, 'Hey, we need to go repeat!' Somewhere along the line that gets lost. You can't play for whatever happened last year."
Hearing Belichick stress that message over the years, according to players, helped in the process.
For example, in 2017 spring practice, when many were still riding high from the team's historic comeback victory against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI and shiny new rings had just been issued, Belichick said: "We need to move on to 2017. We've had enough parades, enough celebrations and enough everything. This '17 team hasn't done anything, yet. None of us have."
Baseball Hall of Famer Tony La Russa, one of Belichick's close friends, has said Belichick's ability to reset and start at zero is one of the things he admires most about him.
Belichick echoed those words this week when asked what he witnessed that helped the Patriots move forward from Super Bowl LII.
"Each year is a new year, and each of our performances from year to year is contingent on our preparation and ability to perform in that season that we're being judged in, not what we did in some other years," he said. "Personally, I don't really put a lot of weight or a whole lot of evaluation into what's happened in the past. I try to focus more on the present, and how that can be improved and accelerated to work to a higher level. That's really what's it's about for me."
And, thus, by extension for the franchise as a whole.
"Because this team is organized from the top to the bottom, it makes it a lot easier," McCourty said. "Bill has that. RKK [owner Robert Kraft] has that. It trickles down from the leadership to the team to every guy -- a free agent coming in, or rookies, where it's like, 'Shoot, no one talks about the Super Bowl. No one cares about it.' By doing that, you give yourself a chance to compete and play."
Still, the way the Patriots lost to the Eagles in the Super Bowl was similar to the heartbreak the Seahawks experienced when Butler intercepted Russell Wilson at the goal line, and what the Falcons went through in letting a 28-3 third-quarter lead slip away to the Patriots. Those franchises haven't been back to the Super Bowl since.
Starting left guard Joe Thuney, who last season became the first player in NFL history to start in a Super Bowl in each of his first three seasons, said there was basically just one thing that helped him move forward from that loss to Philadelphia: "Time."
"You keep that feeling and never forget it, but you move forward," added cornerback Jonathan Jones, who had missed the game with a broken foot suffered earlier in the playoffs. "The more you can start with a blank canvas, and not linger on the past, I think that's always the key."
This was how Brady described his mindset in his weekly radio interview, when asked how long it took him to get over that loss.
"You assume I'm over it. Come on, now! That's a lot of mental scar tissue from that year. That was a tough game," Brady said. "In a lot of ways, I think we learned from that year and came back stronger. Everything is a matter of perspective. When you play in that game, and you play great teams, you're not going to win them all. This is not the Harlem Globetrotters vs. the Washington Generals."
Slater spoke proudly of how the Patriots' resilience has shown since the game.
"I'd certainly be lying if I said you lose a game like that and just take it in stride," he said. "You work hard your entire professional career to get in games like that, and then to not be able to win them -- and certainly losing the fashion we did in a tight ballgame -- is always tough. But I look at it like this, in life you're going to have moments like that. ... People face those kinds of circumstances each and every day, and I think perspective is important in those situations.
"Coach Belichick has a unique ability to shift the focus from one thing to the next, and to do it quickly. Certainly, all of New England mourned that loss. But I think we found a way to learn from it, and better ourselves as men and as a football team. I certainly think we were able to write a pretty good story the following season."