<
>

Patriots wrap up Pro Bowl with a loss

HONOLULU -- Assuming the Pro Bowl stays in its current time slot a year from now, the Patriots’ goal for next season is clear -- don’t be in it.

A selection to the Pro Bowl remains a distinction to put on the bio, and the Patriots who made the trip soaked up the warmth and relaxation during their week in Hawaii.

Playing in the actual game, however, amounts to a consolation prize for a fine individual season that came up short of the Super Bowl.

A week before the Steelers and Packers -- two teams the Patriots beat this season -- meet in the Super Bowl, New England’s seven representatives and coaching staff closed out the year in a 55-41 AFC loss at Aloha Stadium.

“Everybody’s goal is to get to the Super Bowl,” receiver Wes Welker said after catching five passes for 34 yards. “We’ll play hard and get better this offseason and get ready to try and do that.”

The preparation for the players won’t start just yet, though. Welker said he plans to take some time off to decompress and recharge from the just-completed season.

“We’re going to take some time off, some relaxing time, hang out, be with the family and in a month or so get back at it,” Welker said.

The Patriots coaching staff, which guided the AFC in the game, won’t have much of a break at all. Bill Belichick won’t linger too long in the islands before heading back across the country to begin the task of looking ahead to next season.

“We’re rolling because we have the draft coming up, the Indianapolis combine and stuff like that,” Belichick said.

Then there’s free agency, assuming the league’s labor issues are resolved in time for the new season.

Guard Logan Mankins is among those who might he headed for free agency, perhaps making Sunday’s game his last in a Patriots helmet.

“We’ll know down the road,” Mankins said. “Once the CBA is done I’ll let you know what I’m doing.”

The laid-back nature of the practices carried over into the game as hitting was generally mild and five AFC turnovers in the first half led the NFC taking a 42-0 lead in the second quarter.

Despite the outcome, rookie cornerback Devin McCourty will likely remember his Pro Bowl debut.

McCourty moved into the AFC’s starting unit when Oakland’s Nnamdi Asomaugh pulled out of the game earlier in the week.

The NFC tested McCourty on the game’s first play from scrimmage when Michael Vick went deep down the middle to Calvin Johnson. McCourty closed quickly to tip the pass away, nearly coming up with the interception.

McCourty was able to secure the ball on another deep pass to open the second quarter, intercepting Matt Ryan’s throw intended for Miles Austin.

He was on the wrong end of a big play when Larry Fitzgerald beat him on a fade for a 25-yard touchdown reception.

Things didn’t start as well for Welker. Welker caught a quick out from Peyton Manning and had the ball stripped away as he tangled with Washington’s DeAngelo Hall. Hall scooped up the loose ball and returned it 34 yards and the NFC took a 28-0 lead.

“He made a good play on it,” Welker said. “I thought I was getting held up trying to get down and waiting for a whistle. He made a good play.”

Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo finished with seven tackles in his Pro Bowl debut and McCourty and safety Brandon Meriweather finished with three. Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork had one stop in the middle of the line as did Mankins, who tackled Hall on an interception.

“I don’t do that very often,” Mankins said. “I just hoped he’d run into me.”

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Jason Kaneshiro covered the Pro Bowl for ESPNBoston.com.