SEATTLE – Logan Mankins was already several questions and answers into his post-game media remarks when a few extra reporters joined the conversation.
One of them apologized for the question he was about to ask, fearing it may have already been brought up.
"Don't worry," the gregarious left guard and co-captain jokingly assured the man, "I won't choke you."
Mankins' choice of words was somewhat prescient, as the question was about why, in three losses this season, the Patriots seem to lack the necessary killer instinct when they have their opponents by the throat.
"I think it's mistakes," was Mankins' simple explanation.
Just moments earlier, a few lockers down, wide receiver Deion Branch was asked directly if the 2012 Patriots are indeed deficient in the mental toughness department.
"Oh, no, I think we have it," he insisted, before adding to Mankins' response. "We're just not executing. We're doing a good job moving the ball, but we're not finishing drives."
Case in point: the end of the first half.
Up 17-10, New England's defense forced Seattle's offense to punt from their own 38-yard line. A steady rain throughout the game had made for slippery footballs which the officiating crew tried desperately to keep dry.
On the punt snap, Seahawks punter Jon Ryan bobbled the ball and was swarmed by Patriots. New England took over on downs at Seattle's 24-yard line. The Patriots offense then got down to the Seahawks' 3 with 12 seconds to go. Quarterback Tom Brady nearly was picked off trying to find tight end Rob Gronkowski on a pass to the end zone. That play took six seconds off the clock.
Send in the field goal unit, right?
Instead, head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels elected to push their luck by trying one more end zone pass. The gamble nearly paid off, as Brady, under pressure from the Seattle defense, appeared to throw the ball out of the back of the end zone with just one second left. But the refs flagged Brady for intentional grounding. By rule, with under two minutes to go in a half, such a penalty also results in a 10-second runoff of the game clock.
Time therefore expired and the Patriots couldn't attempt a chip-shot field goal.
"We had plenty of time after the ball was declared dead. Still had a second," Mankins lamented. "We just didn't make the right play, I guess. That's the breaks. You get in the red zone, you've got to score points. At least three. Sometimes you lose just scoring three. If you don't score any, that's really tough."
"Yeah, it was. Exactly," echoed Branch. "At worse, we get three points, but the fact we got the ball around the 20-yard line and didn't get anything…"
The receiver's voice trailed off, but he eventually continued his train of thought.
"We're not executing when we need a certain play. When it really matters, we're not executing. Let's not put it all on one or two plays. We had so many opportunities to put this game away early, and we didn't."
It wasn't just the offense that struggled, either.
On defense, New England got consistent pressure on Seattle's rookie quarterback, Russell Wilson. Yet, the nimble, athletic Wilson repeatedly was able to complete long pass plays that extended Seahawks drives.
The frustration with such breakdowns on D was palpable on the expressions of the Patriots faces, body language, and the deafening silence of the post-game locker room.
"We didn't make enough plays. Plain and simple," an irascible Vince Wilfork told reporters. The defensive tackle/co-captain doesn't always make comments on the record after losses., but this one hurt so much, it seemed he had to vent.
"I mean, very frustrating," he went on. "I'm not going to sit here and lie to you and say I'm not frustrated. I don't know what else to say, because I'll probably lose my head right now. But, very frustrating that we just didn't make enough plays when it counted. And it cost us."
"We didn't make enough plays. We gave up plays, we didn't make plays of our own, and that's what it came down to today," cornerback/co-captain Devin McCourty dejectedly pointed out.
"It's disappointing. We could've played better. They did a great job of fighting and trying to make plays. We've got to play better. We've just got to finish it. It's no big thing. We've got to get it done. I wish I could give you a better explanation, but there's nothing else to say."
Even so, to a man, the Patriots maintained that they have the wherewithal to be a team that can deliver the coup de grace to a vulnerable foe.
"I think so," declared Mankins. "We've got good players, guys that care about the team and winning. We've just got to make plays when they're there. Can't make mistakes in those big situations. We have to do it as a unit. Everyone's got to be on the same page, doing things the right way. Sometimes, not all 11 are doing that.
"We came out in the second half and still moved the ball. We just didn't score points with it. That was tough."
"And today we didn't play mistake-free football," added Branch. "We had a lot of flags, had some turnovers. You can't come in this type of environment, do those things, and expect to win the game."
But they almost did, and probably should have. On 3rd-and-8 from their own 43 with 2:52 to go and the Patriots clinging to a 23-17 lead, Brady looked to Branch running a slant from the left. A Seattle corner clearly made contact with Branch before the ball got to the area, but no flag was thrown for pass interference.
"I talked to the refs afterward… not only that one, but a couple that were in the end zone that were clearly [interference], you know," recalled a conciliatory Branch. "That's football. It's hard for those guys to see everything on the field."
New England was forced to punt, and the Seahawks wound up scoring four plays later on a 46-yard bomb from Wilson to receiver Sidney Rice.
"They made some plays, but we still felt like, even that last drive, 'Just get a stop, we'll win this game,'" McCourty asserted when asked if he felt the game slipping from New England's grasp.
"Throughout the game, you don't really think about it that way. You just think about what you've got to do next to win the game. We kept that mindset and we fell short today."
Rookie Tavon Wilson, starting in place of injured Steve Gregory, was victimized by Rice on the game-winning score. He bravely faced the music afterward.
"I got beat – plain and simple. We were in a simple coverage. I mean, he made the play; I didn't," Wilson said.
"I'm held accountable just like everybody else on this team. I don't expect to take any slack because I'm a rookie. I've just got to make the play. That's what my team put me out there for. They expect me to make the play, and I should make the play. Everybody's got to do their job. It's as simple as that. No excuses. Everyone has to do their job. The coverage isn't designed to get beat over the top like that. If everybody does their job, we should be fine."
"I know we have it," Branch insisted. "It's just all about getting it out of us. And trust me, I haven't doubted one time that we have it. I see it with the guys at practice. We see it in the game in certain situations. We've just got to continue to push forward.
"How do we do it? It's going to start in the meeting rooms, then on the practice field…"
Again, Branch's voice trailed off before he could finish the thought he'd started.
It's a problem the Patriots seem to be having on and off the field. PFW