INDIANAPOLIS – The New England Patriots' three star receivers couldn't make the big plays when they needed them. Neither could their superstar quarterback.
"We had opportunities to put this team away and we didn't," wide receiver Deion Branch said after Sunday night's 21-17 loss. "All the plays were big."
From the Patriots' first offensive play — Brady's deep pass from the end zone to nobody that resulted in a safety for intentional grounding — to their last — a desperation heave into the same end zone — they made mistakes and wasted opportunities.
None, however, loomed as large as Brady's pass up the left side to a wide-open Welker at the Giants 20-yard line with the Patriots ahead 17-15 and just over four minutes left.
The throw wasn't perfect. Welker had to twist his body to reach it. But he did get two hands on it as he was falling backward and blamed himself for failing in a critical situation.
"It's one of those plays I've made 1,000 times," he said. "It comes to the biggest moment of my life, and (I) don't come up with it."
On the next play, Brady threw behind Branch over the middle.
"Every play is important," Branch said. "Had I made the catch that was behind me, that could have been a key third down (conversion) but we didn't connect on it."
So the Patriots punted and Eli Manning led the Giants on an 88-yard drive with Ahmad Bradshaw going in from 6 yards for a 21-17 lead with 57 seconds left. The defense let him score so Brady could get the ball back with enough time for a long shot comeback. He did get the ball to his 44-yard line with 5 seconds left.
Time enough for one pass into the end zone.
Hernandez and Gronkowski were there with three Giants. The ball was tipped and fell to the ground away from a lunging Gronkowski. The Giants celebrated as purple confetti fell. Brady removed his helmet and walked off the field.
"I felt like I was close," Gronkowski said. "But close isn't there."
It was quite an ending for a team that had the second-ranked passing game in the NFL.
Welker led the league with 122 receptions, Gronkowski set a single-season record with 17 touchdown catches by a tight end and Hernandez had 79 catches while operating out of the tight end, wide receiver and running backs spots. And Brady threw for 5,235 yards, second most in NFL history.
But Gronkowski was hampered by a high left ankle sprain and had two catches for 26 yards, his second lowest totals of the season.
"He came out to our practice on Thursday and it's hard to believe he could play the game with the way he was feeling," Brady said. "He really toughed it out."
Had the All-Pro been healthy, the Patriots certainly would have had a better chance.
But they still believed that Brady could lead them to a winning touchdown in the final minute.
"Any time that we get a chance to get our offense on the field, we think we have a chance to score," said Danny Woodhead, whose 4-yard touchdown catch gave the Patriots a 10-9 lead just before halftime.
Hernandez caught a 12-yard scoring pass that made it 17-9. He also led the Patriots with eight receptions, including an 11-yarder that put the ball at their 44-yard line with 17 seconds left. But Brady's next three passes on the game's last three plays all fell incomplete.
"It always comes down to one or two plays in this game and if you make it, you're celebrating," Brady said. "If you don't, then you don't sleep for a week."
Plenty of Patriots should be tossing and turning for a while.
They forced three fumbles, but the Giants recovered two of them and the third was nullified because they had 12 men on the field.
The missed chance that got the most attention was the drop by Welker on a catchable, if not accurately thrown, ball. Had he caught it, the Patriots would have had a chance to make it a two-possession game.
"There's a lot of opportunities to miss out on," he said. "We definitely had ours and didn't take advantage. I'm right there at the top of the list."
But Brady is confident that he and Welker will be a successful pairing again.
"He's a hell of a player," Brady said. "I'll keep throwing the ball to him for as long as I possibly can. He's a phenomenal player and teammate. I love that guy."