FOXBOROUGH -- The image has become all too familiar, a solemn reminder worth a thousand expletives to Patriots fans. The shot of Tom Brady, eyes to the ground, shoulders slumped, inanimate crowd behind him, is no longer necessary as a reminder of the franchise's own unique purgatory.
We've seen the image before, last February against the conquering Giants in Indianapolis, and the winter before at the end of a Jets lockdown on the Gillette Stadium that becomes more unfathomable in retrospect with each passing season, and the season before against the same brash and fierce opponent that ended their season Sunday night. "Bummed Brady" has become the opposite of Red Auerbach's victory cigar in recent seasons, the confirmation that another season has ended short of the lofty, not-quite-attainable goal, that the confetti will fall on someone else.
Oh, the Patriots' prolonged run of excellence as a genuine championship contender virtually every season since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady joined forces is extraordinary and perhaps unprecedented, particularly in the salary-cap era. That must be acknowledged, even in the gray aftermath of the Ravens' 28-13 victory in the AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium Sunday. The were well-positioned to win a Super Bowl this year, and they will be next barring catastrophe or accelerated aging by the still-exceptional quarterback. But that is about as much solace as can be found this morning. The Patriots have now gone eight seasons without being able secure a fourth Lombardi Trophy. This season of such promise ends with a lot of wins and another what-might-have been ending. They're so damn good, and not good enough.
There are probably statistics to counter the emotion, but it sure feels like a long time since Brady has commanded the Patriots to a playoff victory with his ability and smarts and sheer will, and it's hard not to notice that he's 7-7 in his last 14 playoff games after beginning his career an almost unfathomable 10-0. He surpassed Brett Favre as the all-time postseason passing yardage leader Sunday, a hollow record given the circumstances in which it was attained and one we suspect Brady could not value any less at the moment. The legacy he covets is as football's preeminent winner, and while it seems foolish to punish him for helming teams that lose in conference title games (twice) or in the final two minutes of a Super Bowl (twice), particularly since his closest peer of his era, Peyton Manning, has eight postseason one-and-dones on his résumé, But the reality is that the last eight seasons for the Patriots have been a run of unfulfilling brilliance.
Brady has not won a Super Bowl since 2004, when Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel and Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour and so many more long-since-departed stalwarts were still here. Yet if Brady's not the same quarterback he was then, he's off by just a minor calibration, with the wisdom of experience presumably making up for any minor erosion in skill. Yet that wisdom was shockingly absent during one pivotal moment Sunday. In the final moments of the first half, deep in Ravens territory, Brady inexplicably allowed the clock to tick to four seconds before calling a timeout after a scramble, thus forcing the Patriots to settle for a 25-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski. They went into the half with a 13-7 lead, but they left potential points on the field that they would never recoup.
That frustrating end to the half wasn't the only ominous twist. In the first quarter. Aqib Talib, the cornerback whose in-season acquisition from the Buccaneers stabilized the defensive backfield and allowed others to slide into more fitting roles, departed after the third defensive series, clutching his right hamstring. The injury came after Talib had again demonstrated his value, busting up a third-down pass to Anquan Boldin. He was replaced by Kyle Arrington. During the postgame, Flacco said the Ravens made a conscious effort to try to beat the Patriots with the pass. Such a strategy may have been less of a consideration -- and may have been less successful -- had Talib's season not ended three quarters before his teammates'.
Joe Flacco, the Ravens' strong-armed, much-improved quarterback, threw all three of his touchdown passes in the second half, and Brady, stunningly, could not come close to keeping pace, an outcome that was the opposite of the conventional expectation. The Patriots were shut out in the second half, the first time an opponent slapped a zero on them after the break since a 2009 game against the Jets. So much for the thought perpetrated here throughout the season that this was the most diversely talented collection of players Brady has had at his disposal since he's been here. Brandon Lloyd is decent but hardly dependable. Aaron Hernandez, an obvious choice to pick up the slack for injured Rob Gronkowski (can we agree we actually underestimated his absence and vow to never do so again?), was terrific in the first half but had just two receptions on five targets in the second, finishing with nine catches overall. There's still too much inconsistency in his game.
Then there is Wes Welker. He's been an exemplary Patriot, so easy to root for, so willing to do whatever it takes to make a play. He's made so many of those plays, with 672 regular-season receptions during his six seasons in New England, that it doesn't seem fair that a second straight season ends with discussion surrounding a play he should have made but couldn't. But it does. On the Patriots' first possession of the second half, they drove to the Baltimore 34, with a 24-yard strike to Welker plus a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty on Pollard seeming to tilt the momentum the Patriots' way. But on third-and-8, a wide-open Welker dropped Brady's on-target throw near the 20, forcing a punt. A chance to take a 20-7 lead was wasted, and while the mistake wasn't as instantly devastating as Welker's late drop that might have clinched Super Bowl XLVI, it was an easier catch and thus more egregious. Welker has not been part of a Super Bowl champion in New England, and with potential free agency looming, the chance may have slipped through his hands for good. Perhaps this is sentiment speaking, but here's hoping another comes his way. He can still be essential. If anything, he's depended upon too much.
The Patriots had designs of running the ball in the hurry-up offense until the aging Ravens gasped for breath and lost their grip, but Baltimore's will proved too strong, and the Patriots reverted to being a one-dimensional offense. They gained 108 yards on 28 carries, with just 33 yards coming in the second half. Stevan Ridley, who ran for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns in his breakthrough second NFL season, was literally knocked out early in the fourth quarter on a vicious hit by Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, who apparently doesn't consider a game official until he has injured a Patriot. The injury was accompanied by insult -- Ridley, his lights turned off, plopped the ball to the turf. Baltimore recovered at the Patriots 47, and four plays later, Joe Flacco found Anquan Boldin for his second touchdown of the quarter. It was 28-13, and the lights were off for the rest of the Patriots as well.
I don't know about you, but I'll insist deep into the offseason that this year's roster, with a remodeled defense, was better than the one that got to the Super Bowl last year. That they're not going back only serves as evidence of how difficult it is, and so once again you, me, and perhaps even the guy in the photograph are left to ponder those days when they made winning championships seem so much easier.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.