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Tim O’Sullivan: Patriots have become ‘the almost team’

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, left, and Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, right, meet at midfield after the NFL football AFC Championship football game in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013.  The Ravens won 28-13 to advance to Super Bowl XLVII. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, left, and Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, right, meet at midfield after the NFL football AFC Championship football game in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013. The Ravens won 28-13 to advance to Super Bowl XLVII. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

This has become the new football identity in New England. Reaching the biggest games, but invariably finding ways to lose. Success with an asterisk.

It’s hard to call the season a failure when the Patriots were one of the final four teams standing, but that’s how it feels after last night’s 28-13 loss to Baltimore in the AFC championship. New England was at home and favored by more than a touchdown, and success is measured in Super Bowl wins in Foxborough.

The Patriots used to be the team overcoming obstacles, the team making the best plays and smartest decisions at the right time. All those final drives and last-second field goals from Adam Vinatieri were the perfect images to represent the title-winning teams in 2001, 2003 and 2004.

The new image comes in symbol form: 18-1. Almost, but not quite.

The Ravens had plenty to do with keeping this trend alive last night at windy Gillette Stadium. They made the better adjustments, scoring 21 unanswered points in the second half. Joe Flacco outplayed Tom Brady, especially in that second half. And their defense was nails, both mentally and physically. There’s no doubt Baltimore earned its trip to Super Bowl XLVII and a date with San Francisco.

But here in New England, this game is another chapter in the Patriots’ story of lost chances.

There were no last-second failures, like in the Super Bowl losses to the Giants, or the 2006 AFC championship game against the Colts. This time the opportunities were wasted gradually.

The Patriots controlled play in the first quarter, dominating field position and time of possession. They pushed into Baltimore territory three times in the first 15 minutes, but all they could manage by the end of the first was a 3-0 lead.

The Ravens pulled themselves together with a precise and balanced drive early in the second quarter to take a 7-3 lead, but New England came right back with a well-executed touchdown march of its own to go back on top. More momentum and a bigger lead was there for the taking just before halftime, but the Patriots couldn’t grab it.

They drove all the way inside the Baltimore 10-yard line as the first half was winding down, but then mismanaged their timeouts and wasted one, maybe two, cracks at a touchdown. Instead, they had to settle for another field goal and a 13-7 lead at intermission.

New England had huge advantages in first downs (15-8), total plays (45-27) and total yards (214-130) in that first half. It just didn’t show up on the scoreboard.

In the second half, Baltimore made the Patriots pay for all the lost chances. The Ravens started throwing on first down. They finally went after New England’s slower linebackers with the passing game. And with 6:14 left in the third quarter, they took the lead for good on a 5-yard pass from Flacco to Dennis Pitta.

While Flacco would throw two more touchdown passes, both to Anquan Bolden in the fourth quarter, Brady got worse as the game went on. He went 14-for-24 with a touchdown in the first half, but just 15-for-30 with two interceptions in the second half.

Many of those incompletions were ugly, falling so wide of the mark it seemed they must have been tipped, until replay showed they weren’t. And the two interceptions came on the last two drives, killing any comeback hopes.

As hard as it is to admit, this has become Brady’s identity, too. He’s great for most of the year, but can’t finish when it matters most. The Patriots beat Baltimore in last year’s AFC title game in spite of Brady’s two interceptions and zero touchdowns. And he’s put up a measly combined total of 31 points in his last two Super Bowls.

Of course, it wasn’t all Brady’s fault, in years past or last night. The New England defense that was aggressive and productive in the first half against Baltimore was exposed by Flacco in the second half. And it was still just a one-score game when Stevan Ridley fumbled after a knockout collision with Bernard Pollard, the same man who injured Brady in 2008, Rob Gronkowski last year and was in the vicinity when Wes Welker was hurt in 2010.

The hit from Pollard did seem like some sort of curse come to life, like fate was working against the Patriots. Maybe Ray Lewis is right and he’s not meant to retire until after another Super Bowl. Maybe the football gods wanted to see the Harbaugh brothers, Baltimore’s John and San Francisco’s Jim, coach against each other in final game of the season.

Or maybe this is who the Patriots have become. The almost team.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or
tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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