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New England Patriots struggling to put teams away

New England Patriots ' Vince Wilfork reacts on the bench near the end of an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, in Seattle. The Seahawks beat the Patriots 24-23. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

New England Patriots ' Vince Wilfork reacts on the bench near the end of an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, in Seattle. The Seahawks beat the Patriots 24-23. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

The Patriots are 3-3 after losing 24-23 to Seattle on Sunday, leaving the defending conference champions and favorites to repeat locked in a four-way tie in the AFC East. In all three losses, New England had a second-half lead — twice leading by two scores in the fourth quarter.

“When we really needed it, we weren’t able to make the plays we needed to make,” coach Bill Belichick said in a conference call with reporters on Monday. “It’s just disappointing. We’ve come up short in three games — not by very much but it’s been enough.

“We have to find a way to perform better, both throughout the game and certainly in the critical game-changing situations at the end.”

The Patriots were on their way to a win that would have given them the lead in the division, leading Seattle 23-10 in the fourth after Stephen Gostkowski’s field goal. But Russell Wilson hit Braylon Edwards on a 10-yard touchdown pass midway through the quarter and then connected with Sidney Rice for 46 yards to give Seattle a one-point lead with 78 seconds to play.

Having wasted two timeouts early in the half, the Patriots had none remaining by their final drive. Tom Brady was unable to lead them to a first down, and the Seahawks kneeled down for the victory.

“The end of the game is the most critical part of the game, and we need to do better,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Monday. “I need to do better. We can prepare better and we can play better in those situations to try to finish the games out. ... We’ve been in it a few times and we need to be able to close out the games when we get that opportunity.”

New England also struggled to manage its timeouts at the end of the first half, using one to avoid a delay of game penalty on a fourth-and-1 from the Seattle 6 yard-line before sending Gostkowski out for a 25-yard field goal that made it 17-10 with 2:12 to go.

After Seattle punter Jon Ryan fumbled the snap and gave the Patriots the ball at the Seahawks’ 24 with 40 seconds left in the half, Brady hit Wes Welker for 15 yards but used another timeout — and 21 seconds — before the next play.

The Patriots ran just one more play before calling their last timeout, leaving them with no way to stop the clock when Brady was called for intentional grounding — a penalty that requires a 10-second runoff — with 1 second left in the half.

Instead of seven points or an easy field goal, the Patriots went to the locker room with nothing.

“It’s just one of those things were we just came up short in that instance and the one thing that probably couldn’t have happened, happened,” said Welker, who caught 10 passes for 138 yards and a touchdown. “And it’s disappointing.”

The failure to finish teams off has been a disappointment all season.

In Week 2, the Patriots led the Cardinals 9-6 early in the third quarter but fell behind 20-9. New England cut it to eight points on a field goal and made it 20-18 on a touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski; the 2-point conversion to tie it failed.

The Patriots got to the Cardinals’ 18 before a false start and a loss of a yard left them with a 42-yard field goal attempt that Gostkowski missed.

Against Baltimore the next week, the Patriots led 30-21 early in the fourth before the Ravens scored a touchdown and then, as time expired, Baltimore’s Justin Tucker put a 27-yard field goal over the right upright to win the game.

“When you get down to the end of the fourth quarter, then the whole game really now hinges on just a handful of plays or sometimes just one play,” Belichick said. “Not that all the rest of them don’t matter; they do. But ... how well can you execute that, one, two or however many plays it is that are now going to determine the outcome of the game.

“Mental toughness, I think, is part of it. Awareness is part of it. Basic execution is part of it. Conditioning is part of it. Scheming and actual technique of the play, the way the play is set up — all those things are part of it.”

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