SEATTLE — Battered by the Seattle defense for four quarters, his face still red after the game from all the contact he absorbed, Wes Welker took his time getting dressed, his mood sullen, his movements deliberate.
Welker put up monster individual numbers yet again, matching the franchise record for consecutive 100-yard receiving games with his fourth straight. But it came in a 24-23 loss to the Seahawks, so any personal satisfaction was understandably masked after the game.
“Right now, it’s really frustrating, but we’ve just got to get back to work,” Welker said. “We talk about playing a good 60 minutes of football, and we just seem to come up a little bit short. These close games like this, especially when we have the lead like we did in the fourth quarter, you’ve got to be able to put it away, and we weren’t able to do that.”
Welker caught 10 passes for 138 yards, and his 46-yard touchdown in the first quarter opened the Patriots’ scoring. His last four games, in receiving yards: 138, 104, 129, 142. Four straight 100-yard games equals the record of Randy Moss, who opened the 2007 season with four straight. Those came in four wins, though; Welker’s four-game hot streak has come in two wins and two losses.
He took a vicious shot by Brandon Browner in the second quarter (holding on for a 7-yard gain, though), and left the game for three plays. But he came back in on third-and-10, and caught an 11-yard pass from Tom Brady that extended a drive that ultimately resulted in a field goal. If there’s a game that’s displayed Welker’s toughness — there’s been plenty over his career, actually — this one should be added to the list.
“It’s just playing football, going out there and trying to make plays, help the team move the ball down the field,” said Welker, who also had a solid game returning punts, taking four back for a 17-yard average. “Unfortunately it just wasn’t enough today.”
It didn’t take long for the Patriots to welcome back tight end Aaron Hernandez. After missing nearly three full games with an ankle injury — he was hurt early in the home-opening loss to Arizona Sept. 16 — Hernandez caught a pass on the Patriots’ first play, an 8-yard gain.
Hernandez was targeted nine times, and made six catches for 30 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown. He didn’t have anything to say after the game, though. He hasn’t spoken to the media for publication since suffering his injury, and declined an interview request in the postgame locker room.
Rob Ninkovich played a number of snaps at linebacker, but he and fellow defensive end Chandler Jones continued their strong play as edge rushers.
Jones, a rookie first-round pick, had the first two-sack game of his career. His first sack of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson forced a fumble, which Ninkovich recovered. Jones had a team-high nine tackles.
“It’s a tough game to swallow, obviously you don’t want to give away the lead we had and finish out the game, but you’ve got to give them credit for playing a tough game, playing four quarters,” Ninkovich said. “We didn’t finish it out, didn’t do the things we needed to do to win. When you lose a game like that at the end, it just hurts.”
Mesko mess up?
Zoltan Mesko punted only three times (44.3-yard average), but felt like his final kick, with just under three minutes left in the fourth quarter and the Patriots leading, 23-17, contributed to a long return by the Seahawks and was completely his fault. Instead of a high kick with good hang time — giving the coverage team a chance to make a play or limit a return — Mesko’s kick was a low line drive, caught by Leon Washington and returned 25 yards, setting up the Seahawks at their 43. Four plays later, they were in the end zone with the winning touchdown.
“That was a bad job by me. It was terrible. I didn’t do my job,” Mesko said. “Everyone did their job except for me. Everything’s on me.”
Toughing it out
Rob Gronkowski, who has been battling a hip injury and appears to be laboring at times (“It’s all good,’’ he said), was targeted eight times and hauled in six passes for 61 yards, the most receptions he’s had since the Week 2 loss to Arizona (6-75).
As for why the offense seemingly struggles to put teams away, Gronkowski said, “We just have to execute better as a team, play all four quarters. We just have to work harder, keep on grinding, and play better.’’
Running back Brandon Bolden left the game in the first half with a knee injury, and did not return. Bolden came up limping while on the kickoff coverage team. He rushed six times for 28 yards, and his absence attributed to the Patriots’ lack of offensive balance. Coming off back-to-back 200-yard rushing games, the Patriots were limited to 87 yards on just 26 carries . . . Safety Patrick Chung also missed time, leaving the game with a shoulder injury . . . Special teams captain Matthew Slater, who made two impressive tackles on kick coverage, was injured on the second one, suffering an apparent right leg injury.
No surprises here
With Hernandez active, there weren’t any surprises among the Patriots’ inactives. They had ruled out safety Steve Gregory (hip) and linebacker Tracy White (foot) on Friday, then downgraded receiver Julian Edelman (hand) and linebacker Dont’a Hightower (hamstring) on Saturday to out. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (concussion) was ruled out after working in pads on the field in front of the team’s training staff well before the game; defensive lineman Jake Bequette and offensive lineman Matt Tennant were healthy scratches . . . Taking a page out of the Patriots book, the Seahawk won the coin toss and deferred to the second half . . . Like the Titans, the Seahawks have a celebrity raise the team’s “12th Man” flag just before the opening kickoff. Handling the honors was Walter Jones, an offensive tackle who played his entire career with the Seahawks (1997-2009), and made nine Pro Bowls . . . In a halftime ceremony, the Seahawks retired the No. 96 worn for 11 seasons by former defensive lineman Cortez Kennedy. It’s the third number to be retired by the Seahawks, joining Jones (No. 71) and receiver Steve Largent (No. 80) . . . Watching from the press box was Seattle resident Fred Couples, who learned recently that he’ll be inducted next year into the World Golf Hall of Fame.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.