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January 21. 2013 12:22AM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Team, fans left wondering about crucial 'what ifs'

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- WHEN Tom Brady is old and gray - and in a football sense that day is coming sooner than later - he'll look back at his seventh AFC Championship game and inevitably ask, "What if?"

What if Aqib Talib, the cornerback the Patriots acquired at midseason for this very moment, hadn't hurt his thigh after thwarting a pass on New England's second defensive series?

What if Bill Belichick hadn't let a blustery wind and his respect for Baltimore's defense prompt him to punt three times in Ravens' territory, including twice from inside the 35?

What if the Patriots had seized the advantage it created for itself by seriously dominating the fight for field position throughout the opening half?

What if he and Aaron Hernadez hadn't bungled the situational football they so pride themselves on, and had left themselves enough time to score a touchdown, instead of only a field goal, just before halftime?

And, perhaps most painfully, what if Wes Welker had merely caught a catchable ball, and not let it slip through his arms the same way victory did in the Super Bowl last February?

We know now the answer to those questions, and the reality it created: The Baltimore Ravens are the AFC champions, clinching that title with a 28-13 triumph at Gillette Stadium that means Ray Lewis' final game will be Super Bowl XLVII, a contest that'll pit head coach John Harbaugh against brother Jim and his 49ers.

But while the nation fixates on those storylines, New England will be left wondering what could've been for the next two weeks - and well beyond. This was arguably the best Patriots team since the nearly unbeaten bunch of 2007, this was a team that got the late breaks it needed in order to host the conference title tilt, this was a team that seemed to be putting it together at the right time.

Yet Sunday night the Patriots were a team that failed to make the plays they needed. Again.

For the third straight time in the game they were eliminated, they failed to force a turnover. For the fourth straight time, a New England offense that scored more than 500 points couldn't score more than 21 in the game that ended its season. And, even though Sunday's signified the Patriots' first loss in 68 games when holding a halftime lead at home, for the fourth time in four AFC Championship or Super Bowl losses during the Brady-Belichick era the defense couldn't hold a second-half lead,.

It was a familiar recipe that rendered a too-familiar result. And brought a familiar refrain from the coach.

"Just didn't do enough things to win," Belichick said. "That's why they're moving on. They were better than were in, really, everything."

Though the Patriots took a 13-7 lead to the half, they "never got control of the game," according to Deion Branch, and there was uneasiness at intermission because the edge could have - and probably should have - been bigger at the break. New England faced third-and-2 on five of its six third-down chances in the opening quarter, yet converted only a couple, and they dominated the field position to the extent that the Ravens didn't open a drive beyond their own 15-yard line until the third quarter.

They did get a 1-yard touchdown pass to Welker and a pair of Stephen Gostkowski field goals, but the second of those kicks came after Hernandez' failure to get out of bounds and Brady's decision to scramble whittled the clock to where time left them no choice but to kick on second down.

Then they let another chance slip away the first time they touched the ball in the second half - Welker dropped a third-and-7 throw that hit him in the chest - and that's when the Ravens began to make them pay.

Joe Flacco found Dennis Pitta from 5 yards out to give Baltimore a 14-13 lead at the end of an 87-yard march, and from there the loss of Talib really started to show up. Repeatedly picking on Marquice Cole, a special teamer who was forced to cover the slot because Kyle Arrington was pushed outside, the Ravens used two Flacco-to-Anquan Boldin touchdowns to score on three straight possessions - and that 21-point surge put it away, especially when paired with a Stevan Ridley fumble and two desperation-time interceptions from Brady.

"It's the worst feeling," safety Devin McCourty said. "You get this far, you don't see your season coming to an end. You can't prepare for this."

The Patriots' locker room reflected that sense of shock, its tone as quiet and somber as one might expect. The disappointment was obvious at every stall, and though Vince WIlfork wasn't the only one to express the sentiment that "there's no doubt in my mind we'll be back here at this level," there are no guarantees. And that's where this one has to sting the worst.

When training camp opens next season, Brady will be days from his 36th birthday. The quarterback's career will be one year closer to retirement. And the Patriots' championship window will be one season closer to closure, now eight years since their last lift of the Lombardi Trophy.

Back in 2004, another chance to do so almost seemed inevitable. The same was true when they lost the AFC title game after '06, and the Super Bowl after '07. But as the years go on, and opportunities pass like they did in Indianapolis last February, and in Foxborough on Sunday night, a pressing question becomes more and more pertinent.

What if, another opportunity lost, the Patriots have wasted all their chances?

"That's just the way it is: only two teams advance, and those two teams deserve it," said a dejected Brady. "We didn't earn it; they earned it."

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.

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