Bowl-ful of sorrows for Patriots Losses, injuries took toll on New England

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – If the New England Patriots ever had a hex over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, that’s all over now.

The team that won three Super Bowls in four years with Tom Brady’s leadership and Adam Vinatieri’s kicks heads into next season trying to avoid a third straight year without a championship.

“We’ll come back next year and try to do it better,” Brady said, “but I’m proud of the competitiveness we showed.”

Anything less than the NFL title, New England’s players have said, is a disappointment. That feeling filled their quiet locker room Sunday night after they blew an 18-point lead and lost 38-34 to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game.

After entering the season having won six of their last seven meetings with the Colts, including twice in the playoffs, the Patriots lost to Indianapolis during the regular season and again in the AFC championship.

And some players who could have helped weren’t there at all.

The Patriots traded Deion Branch, their top wide receiver, to Seattle after he held out of training camp, and let Vinatieri and linebacker Willie McGinest leave as free agents. Strong safety Rodney Harrison missed his third straight playoff game with a knee injury.

Other key players could be gone before next season.

Asante Samuel, who emerged as a top cornerback, can be an unrestricted free agent, although the Patriots can keep him by designating him a franchise player.

“I’d love to stay under the right circumstances,” said Samuel, who tied Champ Bailey for the NFL regular-season lead with 10 interceptions and ran one back for a touchdown that gave the Patriots a 21-3 lead Sunday.

Linebacker Tedy Bruschi’s 11th season was below his usual standards and he said he needed time to reflect before deciding his future.

If he retires, that would reduce to 10 the number of players who have been on all three championship teams. Three of those players – wide receiver Troy Brown, linebacker Mike Vrabel and special teams player Larry Izzo – have been in the NFL for at least 10 years.

Coach Bill Belichick has done an outstanding job of adding players who buy into his team concept, but the loss of so many three-time champions may be taking its toll.

The Patriots were 12-4 in the regular season, but just 6-3 after their streak of 57 games without consecutive losses ended. They went 8-1 after that, including two playoff wins, and came very close to reaching the Super Bowl against the Chicago Bears.

Had Brady completed a third-and-4 pass to Brown for a first down with 2:27 left, they probably could’ve run out the clock and won 34-31. Instead, they punted and Manning led the Colts on the winning 80-yard drive in just 1:17.

The Patriots allowed 32 points in the second half alone after giving up no more than 23 in their other 18 games. Their defenders were tired from being on the field too long and Manning took advantage by calling plays quickly and not giving New England time to substitute.

With just 54 seconds left when he got the ball back, Brady couldn’t march the Patriots 79 yards to the touchdown they needed and threw an interception on the last play of his inconsistent season.

The master of the comeback fell short, puncturing the mystique that he was Mr. Automatic and that the Patriots were destined to overcome all obstacles – as they have in the past.

Brady struggled early with new receivers, but was solid in the second half of the season. His last two playoff games, though, lacked his usual postseason magic.

The Patriots came from behind to beat San Diego 24-21 even though he threw three interceptions. In the next game, against Indianapolis, he made some inaccurate throws and led only two drives over 35 yards.

“We just let too many opportunities get away,” he said.

For most of the season, the running tandem of Corey Dillon and rookie Laurence Maroney was outstanding. But in the last two playoff games, Dillon had 66 yards rushing and Maroney just 18.

Maroney’s playing time should increase and the offensive line is strong, although blocking tight end Daniel Graham can become a free agent.

The rebuilt receiver corps should improve with more time together. But second-round draft choice Chad Jackson contributed little, and leading receiver Reche Caldwell dropped two key passes Sunday.

The defensive line of Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren is one of the NFL’s best. The linebacking corps lacks depth and the secondary needs safeties Harrison and Eugene Wilson, who both missed large chunks of the season, to regain their form.

Belichick could be the NFL’s best coach and will add players who fit the system while discarding others who may have made major contributions.

After last season, Belichick let Vinatieri sign with Indianapolis as a free agent and didn’t really miss him as rookie Stephen Gostkowski made all eight of his playoff field-goal attempts.

Belichick also allowed linebacker McGinest to sign with Cleveland.

It was McGinest who stopped the Colts’ Edgerrin James on a fourth-down run from the Patriots 1 with 14 seconds left on Nov. 30, 2003, to preserve a 38-34 win.

That was the same score the Colts won by Sunday in the same stadium. McGinest wasn’t around to stop Joseph Addai’s winning 3-yard run with 1:00 left on the same end of the field.

With so much turnover from their championship clubs, the Patriots are a different team.

And not necessarily a better one.

AP-ES-01-22-07 1836EST

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