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Have Pats lost their magic?

As Bill Belichick said, the Patriots' 2012 season ended with a crash landing. It was an unexpected turn of events -- not so much because of the result, but more so in the way the Patriots played in the AFC Championship Game against the Ravens.

They didn't deserve to win, and now we naturally are asking "why?"

To see them struggle in the critical situations, mismanage the clock, drop as many passes as they did and not put up enough resistance on defense in the second half was a surprise. The Ravens converted their opportunities and deserve the credit. The Patriots didn't.

It's going to take some time to sort through it, but the initial reaction from emailers to this week's Patriots mailbag is that the team has lost its championship identity as a physical, hard-nosed team.

Q. Hi Mike, whatever skill matchup advantage the Patriots seemed to have going into the game was erased with offensive mistakes/lack of execution, while the defensive inadequacies in play and personnel resurfaced. As Tom Brady said "We just didn't really stand up to the challenge" -- meaning not matching the Ravens in mental if not physical toughness. There are doubts this is fixable given ongoing postseason defeats. Your thoughts? -- Jake M. (Vancouver, BC)

A. Jake, I do think it's fixable but I also think one has to be honest and straightforward when diagnosing some of these issues. The toughness/physicality aspect would be a concern to me if I was viewing things from Bill Belichick's perspective. I didn't like the way the Ravens dictated that aspect of the game (e.g. Bernard Pollard on Stevan Ridley; controlling the line of scrimmage against the Patriots' run game). To me, that's one of the common threads of some of the team's recent playoff losses and leads to the question, "Has this offense become too finesse?" The Patriots used to view the Colts that way and took pride in beating them up. I think the Ravens might see the Patriots the same way.

Q. Mike, I can't believe it, a lot of what I used to hate about Peyton Manning and the Colts I now see in the Pats! We beat up mediocre teams in the regular season, sprinkle in a big win here or there, then fold in the playoffs when we get hit in the mouth. As sacrilegious as it sounds, here goes -- Brady cracks in high-pressure playoff moments. We won when Brady was just one of several key components. Ever since Bill rebuilt around Brady and the offense, we've fallen short with a number of terrible Brady games. Until we get quicker and harder hitting on defense with a bruising, punishing running game, so Brady isn't the focal point of the team, we'll continue to fall short. Do you agree? What are the two to three things the team can do now for the 2013 season to retool and lessen our reliance on Brady? -- Mark (Tempe, Ariz.)

A. That's a strong opinion, Mark, and I'm still in the process of sorting it all out. I agree with parts of it. At the same time, I catch myself and ask a question like this, "If David Tyree doesn't catch the ball on his helmet, or if Tom Brady and Wes Welker connect on that pass in the Super Bowl, are we having this discussion?" Sometimes it comes down to just making the plays in the critical moments -- and coaching better in those moments -- and the Patriots have lost some of their way in that area. So I think there's probably a balance to strike here, and I'm being careful not to go the knee-jerk reaction route. I want to think this out and need some more time. I do want to pass along this piece in which I explored some of the common threads in recent playoff losses, as this is a starting point for me.

Q. Same old story Mike, the Patriots lose another playoff game against a defense that plays more physical than them, the Patriots' defense is still below average in coverage and pass rushing, and Wes Welker drops another makeable catch. In addition, Belichick and Brady made some very uncharacteristic/unforced errors throughout the game. How do they right this ship? It's the same recipe that beats them every year? -- Marcus (San Diego)

A. Marcus, this is the main theme that has surfaced this week, and I think there is some validity to it. At the same time, I don't think this is any crisis here. The Patriots are going to be in the hunt again next year, too. You're going to have development from young players already on the roster, new free agents and draft picks coming in. A little more focus on the defense, overall toughness, and some help at receiver could go a long way. I can think of a lot of teams in the NFL that would like to trade places with the Patriots.

Q. Mike, please do me a favor: Review the Bernard Pollard hit on Stevan Ridley and tell me that was a legal play. It sure looks like he was going for Stevan's head. Given this guy's history, can we give this some press? I really hope Ridley is OK, because he was a few inches from not getting up. Pollard doesn't deserve to be playing in the Super Bowl. -- Mike L. (Exeter, N.H.)

A. Mike, the contact to the helmet is legal because the ball carrier isn't a defenseless player, and when I reviewed the play, I didn't feel like Pollard was leading with his head. More than anything, I felt Ridley left himself vulnerable by dropping his head, which is dangerous. Those are the types of hits I remember seeing Rodney Harrison make for the Patriots. Game-changers. As for Ridley, I saw him in the locker room after the game and he looked to be OK.

Q. Hey Mike, tough loss on Sunday and I think a big factor was the Patriots' lack of aggressiveness. Bill Belichick talked extensively these last few weeks about being aggressive, yet in situations where the Patriots had opportunities to go for it on fourth down, they chose the more conservative route. I felt the Patriots were playing not to lose. In the most important game of the season with a future Hall of Fame quarterback and several offensive weapons, why are they punting and counting on a weak defense and playing field-position football? -- patriots8812 (Texas)

A. I can see the viewpoint, although lack of aggressiveness wasn't the first thing that came to mind for me. I thought it was truly more lack of execution. They were inside the red zone four times and scored one touchdown. The Ravens scored four touchdowns in the red zone. As Bill Belichick pointed out, that was one of the major differences in the game. I felt as if the Patriots moved the ball, they just didn't convert on those handful of critical plays that can decide a game. There are a lot of reasons that is the case, and we'll address those in the coming weeks.

Q. Hi Mike, although I'm sure that we can all agree that various components of the offense could have played better on Sunday, I am curious to know how that might have shifted with a healthy Rob Gronkowski. One way to figure this out would be to consider how much of a role he played in previous match-ups against the Ravens. Was he the 'missing piece' of the offense Sunday? -- Zoe L. (Tampa, Fla.)

A. Zoe, losing Gronkowski obviously hurt the offense, but this is a team that prides itself on "next man up." I think we'd be hypocritical to praise them one week for their ability to adjust without Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead against the Texans, and then fall back on Gronkowski's injury as a reason for the loss to the Ravens. The best teams overcome that stuff. Gronkowski was limited in the early-season meeting against the Ravens with just two catches, as the Ravens paid a lot of attention to him, opening opportunities for others.

Q. Hey Mike, Joe Flacco had way too much time and looked way too comfortable back there. If the Pats knew they were in trouble defending the pass once Aqib Talib went out, why not risk some blitzes to do something? Maybe a strip-sack or force a bad throw. Otherwise they are just allowing themselves to be picked apart. -- Dave Jr. (Tampa, Fla.)

A. Dave, I don't have the blitz percentages handy at this time, but I agree that the pass rush wasn't good enough. The Ravens won the battle at the line of scrimmage. No excuses for the Patriots, even though they were without starting right defensive end Chandler Jones (two snaps played, on goal-line defense), one of their better pass-rushers. It was still a one-possession game in the third quarter so I don't think "selling out" was necessarily the answer. Could they have dialed up a blitz or two? I could see that, but at the end of the day, there are situations where it's their receiver against your defender, and it's "who makes the play?" The way I see it, the Ravens' personnel was better than the Patriots' personnel in those situations.

Q. Hey Mike, the Patriot defenders mentioned being somewhat caught off-guard when the Ravens switched up their offensive plan in the second half. The Ravens' up-tempo/pass-first switch did not seem that surprising, given Talib's injury and their previous playoff games. Why were the Patriots so surprised and unable to counter this move? Just didn't have the personnel (similar to earlier in the season)? -- Tyler (Boston)

A. Tyler, I don't think they were surprised by it. In fact, I think they were expecting it sooner than the Ravens ran it. They just didn't play it very well, and as Bill Belichick pointed out, the trouble spot was second down. The Patriots had the Ravens in quite a few second-and-longs and couldn't stop them to set up third-and-longs. I do view it more as personnel-based. The Ravens get the credit -- they made the plays.

Q. Mike, tough loss to a tough team. I take solace in the feeling that there's no other team I'd rather be cheering for or investing my time in. Thoughts turn to next season, and to me the changes on offense should be dictated by looking at the teams that beat us -- NFC West teams like Seattle, SF, and Arizona and an "honorary" NFC West team like Baltimore -- all with fast, tough, big defenses that can rush four and get to the QB, have good LB play and big, strong defensive backs. Is there a weakness we can exploit? I am not convinced a Mike Wallace turns those losses into wins. You? On defense, I am convinced safety is our biggest weakness, highlighted by how much McCourty "settled things down" when he got back there. It really shines a light on why we've had so many troubles since turning the defense over in 2008/9, losing Rodney Harrison and then having such a revolving door at the position. I don't want to pick on anyone, but Steve Gregory whiffs on tackles like he's paid to miss, and takes bad routes in coverage. I like Patrick Chung, but he's gone. Tavon Wilson is not an every-down player. If we don't make some serious additions there (and at DB), we're in trouble. I think every other spot on the roster looks like it's improving (assuming we keep Sebastian Vollmer, Julian Edelman, and/or Welker), though I agree a DT would be nice. Thoughts? -- grandjordanian (San Diego, Calif.)

A. I think a Mike Wallace-type receiver could help, but I'm not sure Wallace himself is the answer; you have to factor in the complete economic picture and how it relates to building a team. But I certainly see them looking closely at the receiver position this offseason. I agree with the thoughts on the safety position, and it's one of the reasons I thought Notre Dame's Harrison Smith was a strong possibility for them in the first round last year (he went to the Vikings and played very well). I do think we'll see an addition at defensive tackle and one name that I'm intrigued about is Armond Armstead of the Canadian Football League. I think he could help them and would be the equivalent of a strong draft pick.

Q. Mike, at the end of the first half in the AFC Championship Game against the Ravens, when Brady ran and then botched the timeout call, leaving only 4 seconds for a field goal, wouldn't it have been better for him to just throw the ball out of bounds? It would have stopped the clock with about 15 seconds left. -- Chip (Monroe, Conn.)

A. Yes, Chip, throwing the ball out of bounds would have preserved more time. Likewise, better awareness from tight end Aaron Hernandez before that, when he could have gone out of bounds to stop the clock but didn't, could have saved another timeout. It was poor execution by an offense and coaching staff that prides itself on mastering those moments. No sugarcoating it.

Q. Mike, what is Aqib Talib's contract status and where does he stand with respect to Wes Welker and Sebastian Vollmer if his contract is up? -- Pete (Scituate, Mass.)

A. Pete, they all project to be priorities from this view, and it will come down to cost considerations and how it affects the complete context of the team. For example, I used to think that the Patriots would assign the franchise tag on Welker again ($11.4 million) if they couldn't reach a multiyear contract agreement. I am moving off that line of thinking. I expect the Patriots to pursue all three and believe they can re-sign all three, but a lot of that will depend on how the market unfolds, which is out of the team's control to a degree.

Q. Hey Mike, with Sebastian Vollmer soon to become a free agent and teams like Indy loaded with cap space and with subpar O-lines, could you see Vollmer leaving New England this offseason? Vollmer is our best O-lineman, in my opinion, but I don't see BB paying top money for an injury- prone lineman. -- Imala (Brisbane)

A. Imala, I would assume the Patriots want Vollmer to return, but at this point, one would think Vollmer would be interested in seeing what his value is on the open market. When that happens, if another team ups the ante, the Patriots usually move on if it's at a level they aren't comfortable with. So it's a tough one to project right now, without knowing more details of Vollmer's mindset (how much does he want to be in New England or is he planning to go to the highest bidder regardless?). I do expect the Patriots to be competitive and make an aggressive attempt to re-sign Vollmer. I could envision a scenario where he is their top priority.

Q. Mike, the defense is clearly better having acquired Talib. That said, and even though they gave up picks to get him, does anything in the Pats' recent history suggest that they'll make it a priority to sign him to a new contract? They've been looking for a replacement for Asante Samuel for a long time. -- Jeff H. (Fairfield, Maine)

A. Talib is scheduled for unrestricted free agency after the season and the comparison I've made in recent weeks is to Randy Moss in 2008. Similar to Moss after playing on a one-year deal in 2007, I think the Patriots have interest in his return but they will set a value and generally stick to it. The Eagles almost swooped in and signed Moss before the Patriots and Moss finalized a three-year, $27 million deal. In acquiring Talib, the Patriots assumed little risk because Talib was still playing for a contract. The question they'll probably be looking for some clarity on is how they feel Talib might change, if at all, if he has a new contract and some more security. Also, what is the level of concern with the injuries Talib sustained while with the Patriots, and how much should that affect the level of investment? That's a tough question.

Q. Hey Mike, first I want to say is how disappointed I am with how the Patriots played. They looked deflated and beat in the second half. In the big picture, I feel like Bill Belichick missed a golden opportunity to bring Asante Samuel back to the team in the offseason. While the Aqib Talib trade paid off, do you believe Belichick has any regrets about not pursuing Samuel? -- Ted W. (East Brunswick, N.J.)

A. Ted, the trade the Falcons made for Samuel was very well done -- giving up a seventh-rounder and with Samuel agreeing to adjust his contract downward. They got more value out of that deal than the Patriots did with Talib (a fourth-rounder for a half-season), but like you, I still think the Talib deal was a good one. I don't think Belichick regrets it, but I think you brought up a good point. Perhaps there was an opportunity there, and we know how the Patriots take pride in strategic thinking along those lines, and another team pulled it off.

Q. Hey Mike, disappointing end to a promising season. The Ravens have always had Brady's number and unfortunately their offense has caught up. Quick question regarding Devin McCourty: Will he now be considered a safety first, and thus listed as such on the depth chart (independent of whether Talib comes back)? Thanks. -- Glenn (Boston)

A. Glenn, on McCourty, I expect the Patriots to say that they'll tap his flexibility and won't lock him in on one spot. But behind the scenes, I would think there is strong consideration to leave him at safety. He looked more comfortable there from this perspective.

Q. Dear Mike, we have a deep and talented backfield, which is very exciting as a fan. Looking ahead to next season, however, with the presumed return of Jeff Demps to the roster, is there likelihood of an odd-man-out scenario? Assuming we re-sign Danny Woodhead (which I hope we do), we'll have a lot of spots devoted to halfbacks (which isn't necessarily a bad thing). Does a trade or cut to allow more roster flexibility seem likely or does this strike you more as something that Bill Belichick will roll with, given the versatility and skill of this unit? -- Austin (Portland)

A. Austin, the main thing that comes to mind is that the depth at running back provides the team leverage when it comes to Danny Woodhead. It makes sense to think the team would want Woodhead back, and it makes sense that Woodhead would want to be back. But as we know, it all comes to both sides finding an agreeable middle ground, and the value the Patriots could set on Woodhead might be affected by the presence of the other running backs. I think Woodhead has proven his value to the team but the question remains, at what cost going forward? Given the pounding running backs take, I think it's a good position to have depth and Belichick would like them all back.

Q. Mike, with the last coaching vacancy filled today it looks like Josh McDaniels will be back with the Patriots next season. Since that appears to be the case, why the urgency to bring Brian Daboll back, and I ask that question on both sides. If there's no succession plan going from McDaniels to Daboll like there was from O'Brien to McDaniels, why not wait until the offseason to make the move? And from Daboll's perspective, why not hang around to see if a coordinator job materializes? Last but not least, are you surprised he was welcomed back in the fold given that he left with and worked on two staffs under Eric Mangini? -- Dean (Taunton)

A. Dean, without having a chance to talk to Daboll, these are questions that are a challenge to answer. But I'll pass along what I think we're looking at here. Bill Belichick perhaps anticipates some changes at the position-coach level and envisions Daboll as a fit. With that decision made, and with the chance to make the move now to add another trusted set of eyes to the staff, why not? As for Daboll himself, after bouncing around from the Jets, Browns, Dolphins and Chiefs, perhaps he's looking for some stability and what place is more stable than New England? He's also close friends with McDaniels, so it's a chance to work with a friend. I wasn't surprised the Patriots welcomed him back. Once Daboll was hired by the Chiefs and Scott Pioli last year, it was a clear statement to me that he wasn't viewed the same way that someone like Bill Belichick or Pioli might view Mangini.

Q. Mike, any chance the return of Brian Daboll is a sign of a possible retirement for Ivan Fears or the great Dante Scarnecchia? Scarnecchia will be 65 in February. He is the best O-line coach in the league in my view and would be a huge loss, but he is approaching retirement age so it seems possible. Any rumblings about this? -- Bob (Holden, Mass.)

A. Bob, I haven't heard anything with Scarnecchia, and given Daboll's background as a receivers/quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, the O-line wouldn't be the area I'd focus. I don't know the contract status of receivers coach Chad O'Shea and tight ends coach George Godsey, but it's worth noting that O'Shea was hired in 2009 after Josh McDaniels had departed for Denver, and Godsey came to New England with Bill O'Brien, who is now at Penn State.

Q. Hey Mike, with all the coach firings going on the past few weeks, I was trying to think of the last time the Patriots fired a coach at any level. -- Brent (Denver)

A. Brent, the natural starting point is 2000 when Pete Carroll wasn't brought back after three seasons on the job. The position coaches are a bit trickier because sometimes when they don't return the following season, it could be a result of their contracts expiring. The Patriots don't announce firings. So names like Shane Waldron, Pete Mangurian, Randy Melvin and Corwin Brown would fall into that "could-be, might-not-be" category.

Q. Hi Mike, Rob Gronkowski was medically cleared but does that mean also ready to play? It is apparent it was not so. The analogy is a player can be quite fit but not "game" fit to play. There was no necessity for him to play in this game, so why take such a risk given the much higher stakes in the next two games? Your thoughts? -- Jake M. (Vancouver, BC)

A. Jake, I don't think it was an issue of Gronkowski not being "game" fit. To me, he was either medically cleared or he wasn't. Once you get to that point, the issue then becomes how much you utilize him in the game plan. When we saw him Dec. 30 against the Dolphins, he didn't look comfortable. So while he might have been medically cleared, he was clearly still struggling with the situation. That's the part where it's a natural second-guess.

Q. Mike, I am concerned about long-term effects of Gronk's injury. Does it compromise his future? Can it become a recurrent problem or is it something that will heal completely with more time? Any word from an expert? Great if you or any of the other reporters can bring further perspective. -- Nissim (Caracas, Venezuela)

A. Nissim, this piece from Shira Springer of the Boston Globe might be of interest to you (registration/subscription might be required). The bone should heal over the months ahead. It's obviously not ideal to have multiple breaks, but reports are that Gronkowski's came in two different spots. If it was the same spot, that's when I might be more concerned.