Curran: Patriots let their opportunity slip away

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Curran: Patriots let their opportunity slip away

FOXBORO You watch sports long enough, you see all the different ways in which games are won or lost.

There is the early-game torrent in which matters are decided within minutes of the anthem ending, and the stunning reversal in which a team has things secured only to fall prey to an onslaught of late-game heroics.

Sunday night? The procrastinators special.

The Patriots kept putting it off, putting it off, putting it off and biding their time. Then slowly, imperceptibly, momentum changed because of New Englands inaction and the realization struck that, oops, times up.

The Patriots didnt hand the Ravens this game. They handed a game to John Harbaughs brother, Jim, about a month ago with four turnovers that helped put them in a 31-3 hole they couldnt fully climb out of.

No, this AFC Championship loss was more about a failure to seize. And you could almost feel it building. A first quarter the Patriots dominated ended with them ahead 3-0.

Hmm. Not gonna get away with that all night. Better finish some of those drives and cash in on that outstanding field position.

Second quarter? The Ravens score and the restless shifting begins in earnest. An answering touchdown from Tom Brady to Wes Welker allays concerns and when the Patriots orchestrate the clock nicely to get the ball back near the end of the half, they are poised to go ahead 17-7.

And then they butcher two opportunities to stop the clock and preserve chances to fire at the end zone and they settle for a field goal. Its 13-7. A matter of time before they start to bust out? Sure. But with the Ravens starting their first half drives on their own 13, 10, 8, 10 and 14? Shoulda been more.

But the second half. After some tinkering in the locker room, you figured an offense that converted 48.7 of its third downs would get things straightened out.

The Patriots got the stop they needed after the second half kickoff and took over looking to go up 20-7. From their own 9 to the Baltimore 36 where they had first down. Two plays later they had third-and-8 from the Ravens 34 and wound up with linebacker Paul Kruger trying to cover Wes Welker. And Welker dropped the pass that hit his hands.

Another punt and then the reins came off of Joe Flacco. He carved up the Patriots back-seven that had -- to that point -- mitigated the loss of Aqib Talib. A touchdown drive made it 14-13, Baltimore, but the Patriots know how to close. They always close. And the Ravens would be exhausted from their marathon in Denver the week before. Just a matter of time.

Backed up in their own end, the Patriots converted a third down with Danny Woodhead. But a hold meant a do-over on third-and-12 and the Patriots couldnt convert that either.

A punt. Another Ravens drive. Another touchdown. And suddenly, it was 20-14. And all the missed chances, and all the great field position wasted started to loom large. Not to mention the knowledge that Baltimore had found itself offensively.

The inevitability of New England continuing to be what its been all year -- more resilient, more efficient, undaunted -- dimmed.

A touchdown to start the fourth for Baltimore. A fumble by Stevan Ridley on a knockout hit by Bernard Pollard. Another touchdown four plays later and it was 28-13.

Too late? Too late. The tide had turned and it was doing what the tide will do -- engulfing the Patriots.

Suddenly, a team that hadnt lost by double-digits since the 2010 season -- a span of 44 games -- was on the ropes and in trouble.

The realization took hold. The Patriots ship had sailed for 2012. All the versatility of their offense, all the efficiency had gone away on this day. The Patriots didnt seize the AFC Championship game when it was there for the taking. And the Baltimore Ravens did.

Malcom Brown already considered a leader for Patriots in second year

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Malcom Brown already considered a leader for Patriots in second year

FOXBORO -- Late last year, Bill Belichick went out of his way to explain just how far then-rookie defensive lineman Malcom Brown had progressed over the course of his first professional season. 

From the sounds of it, the first-round defensive tackle's on-the-field growth was atypical. 

"I think he’s really come on through the season, which isn’t always the case with first-year players," Belichick said on Dec. 30. "It took him a while to get to that point through training camp and the early part of the season, but he’s become much better and more consistent in every phase of the game – running game, passing game, play recognition, communication, adjustments – just everything. It seems like every week he just builds on it.

"He’s really hit a good slope, good incline. He’s worked hard. There is a lot on every rookie’s plate. There’s a lot on his plate as a rookie in the different situations that he plays in and the number of things that we do on the front, so it’s not easy, but he’s improved his techniques, his fundamental play and he’s improved his communication and overall understanding of the multiples that are involved. It’s been good."

Brown finished the year as the Patriots interior defensive lineman with the most snaps played (his 517 snaps trailed only Jabaal Sheard, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich among defensive linemen), and he established himself as a trustworthy option in the team's steady rotation on the interior of its front. 

According to one of Brown's newest teammates, free-agent acquisition Terrance Knighton, Brown is now serving as a leader on the interior of the defensive line. Though he's only in his second season, Brown's understanding of the Patriots defense gives him a leg up on players who may have more experience in the league but are new to New England. 

"Malcom Brown has basically been leading the group," Knighton said after an OTA practice last Thursday. "Being in his second year, he's probably the most experienced guy in it right now as far as this team. I'm picking his brain to see how things are done around here."

 

Knighton acknowledged that once the Patriots have Alan Branch back on the field -- Branch was one of 17 players missing from Thursday's OTA -- they'll get another player with a sound understanding of the defense. But right now, Brown is looked to as a source of information for veterans like Knighton and Markus Kuhn as well as rookie fourth-rounder Vincent Valentine. 

"Young guy, obviously played at a high level last year and you can tell he's feeding off of that," Knighton said of Brown. "He's only continued, from what I've seen on tape to now. That's one of the things I try to talk to about with the young guys is being on the up, and not going up and down in your career. That's something I've been through in my career so I just try to share knowledge and help guys out."

Brown, who turned 22 in February, certainly ended last season "on the up." In the early going this offseason, it seems as though he's on track to continue that trajectory.

Patriots making contract statements with OTA absences?

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Patriots making contract statements with OTA absences?

Malcolm Butler was one of many not spotted during OTAs on Thursday when the media got a looksee at one of the practices.

Butler wasn’t the only one. But he did stand out as a missing player who hadn’t (to my knowledge) had a surgery but did have a contract that needs addressing. Another one? Rob Gronkowski. If we really want to extend it out, throw in Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan.

This is the point where it’s important to point out that these workouts are voluntary – VAW-LUN-TERR-EEEE! Players don’t have to be there. Additionally, I’m not even sure Butler or Gronkowski (or Ryan and Harmon) weren’t at the facility. All I know is they weren’t on the field. And, per usual, nobody’s tipping his hand as to why.

But we do have this, relative to Butler. ESPN’s Mike Reiss wrote Sunday that he “wouldn’t be surprised if it was related to his contract status.” Reiss said that Butler “told teammates and friends he plans to push for an adjustment to his contract before the 2016 season, and staying off the field in voluntary workouts would be a decision that limits injury risk and also could be viewed as a statement to the organization that he's unhappy with the status quo and/or the movement/specifics of contract talks.”

In the same vein, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gronkowski opted out as well for the same reason, especially since he threw out a tweet that signaled dissatisfaction with his pact in March.

But in terms of a statement, not going to OTAs is more of a throat-clearing than a noisy proclamation.

Not to minimize the move if Butler, Gronkowski or anybody else is actually staying away because of business. The Patriots usually enjoy almost perfect OTA attendance. Also, there hasn’t been much contract strife around here for the past five seasons.

Money matters were an annual issue for the Patriots from about 2003 through 2010. Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, Ty Warren, Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork, Randy Moss, Adam Vinatieri, Mike Vrabel and – quietly – Tom Brady all had their contract dances back then. But the only one that got hairy in the recent past was Wes Welker.

It’s still too soon to know if any of these will get contentious. When will we know? When either a player or his agent spouts off. Or, when someone’s a no-show at mandatory minicamp beginning June 7.

That would amount to a shot across the bow. Of all the players likely to take that shot, Butler seems a reasonable bet. His base pay this season is $600K after a Pro Bowl campaign in 2015 that saw him check the opposition’s best wideout on a weekly basis. He’s a restricted free agent at the end of the year. He deserves longer-term security than he currently has. Gronkowski has a lot less to kick about. He may make less than lesser players, but he also was the league’s highest paid tight end when he was missing scads of games due to injury.

After Butler, Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower would figure to have the strongest cases to want new deals and want them snappy. Ryan and Harmon would be right behind those two. Then Jabaal Sheard.

Sheard, Hightower and Collins were all on the field Thursday. 

Can the Patriots get all these guys reupped? Will they even try? How do they have them prioritized? If the guy who howls loudest gets to the front of the line, the time to make some noise is close.

But we have yet to hear any of these players loud and clear.