FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Tom Brady stood helplessly with his hands on his hips after his tipped pass was intercepted. He walked slowly to the sideline, removed his helmet and sat on the bench.
A fourth-quarter comeback chance was gone. The end of his season was less than seven minutes away.
Not even the NFL’s best offense or an improving young defense could soften the blow. The 28-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship game Sunday night left the Patriots without a Super Bowl title for the eighth straight year and sent them into an offseason when they could lose two key players.
Wide receiver Wes Welker and cornerback Aqib Talib can become free agents.
Coach Bill Belichick, the NFL’s longest tenured coach, is looking ahead to his 14th season with the Patriots. He led them to Super Bowl wins in his second, fourth and fifth seasons — but none since.
Only Brady and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork remain from any of those championship teams.
The Patriots did reach the Super Bowl twice in the five seasons before this one. They lost both to the New York Giants, the latest coming last season. Then they stocked their defense with draft choices — end Chandler Jones, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and safety Tavon Wilson.
That was promising but hardly a guarantee of continued success.
“Guys only think about what’s going to happen the year that they’re in,” place-kicker Stephen Gostkowski said, surrounded by trash bags and cartons filled with players’ belongings. “No matter what’s happened in the past it doesn’t mean that anything good’s going to happen in the future. Each year’s different.
“Coming in day one of training camp we had no idea what this team was going to be and you kind of feel your way through throughout the games.”
The Patriots started slowly with a 3-3 record. Then they won seven straight before losing to the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers, 41-34 after rallying from a 31-3 deficit. They ended the regular season with two wins.
There were plenty of positives — an offense that led the NFL with 34.8 points and 427.9 yards per game and a defense that was second in the league with 41 takeaways.
Brady had his usual outstanding season, finishing fourth in the NFL with 4,827 yards passing and throwing for 34 touchdowns and eight interceptions. But against the Ravens on Sunday he produced just one touchdown as the Patriots were held scoreless in the second half.
The 13 points were their fewest since a 16-9 loss to the New York Jets on Sept. 20, 2009.
“It’s hard to win these games,” Brady said Monday during his weekly appearance on WEEI radio. “Unfortunately for us, because we’ve had a lot of success, nothing means anything unless you win the last game of the year.”
Belichick won’t wait long to work toward that goal again.
He must decide whether to keep Welker, the NFL’s leader with 672 receptions over the past six seasons, and Talib, who solidified the secondary when he was traded by Tampa Bay after the eighth game.
The absence of tight end Rob Gronkowski hurt the Patriots Sunday. He watched the game from owner Robert Kraft’s box after breaking his left arm the previous Sunday in a 41-28 divisional win over Houston.
And Brady had his usual struggles against the Ravens.
“Baltimore’s always been a tough team for us,” he said. “Even when we play our best they’re a tough team for us and they play very well.”
The momentum began to shift when Brady mismanaged the clock and the Patriots settled for a field goal on the last play before intermission. In the second half, Joe Flacco threw touchdown passes on three of Baltimore’s first four possessions and New England lost two interceptions and one fumble on three of its last four.
At the most critical time, Brady and his teammates collapsed.
But “there were a lot of positives from this football team,” Belichick said. “We wouldn’t have gotten to where we were without a lot of good, consistent performances from a lot of people.”
More of them on Sunday might have sent the Patriots back to the Super Bowl.
“A season that’s very much alive and with great hopes and expectations and energy suddenly crashes and it’s over,” Belichick said.