Breaking down the AFC Championship from the view of one optimist.
I'm telling you right now: In this article, I'm going to point out some of the positives from the Patriots loss in my rationalization for why the end result ultimately came to be.
Taking positives from an AFC Championship loss? Are you kidding me Greg? What the heck are you doing?
Yeah, that's right. I'm taking positives from an AFC Championship loss. I'm taking positives from the elimination game for the team that had the best season for a Super Bowl runner up in 40 years. And apparently, I'm also going to ask myself an unnecessary amount of redundant and rhetorical questions.
If you're not in the mood to hear a glass half full perspective on Sunday's game, then feel free to turn away now - you've been warned. Because if you haven't figured it out by now, I'm somewhat of an optimist. Sure, I can be appropriately critical. Anyone who has read this blog consistently knows exactly how much I can nitpick a New England victory, even a blowout one at that. But for me, the grass is (almost) always greener. Sure, I was bummed out the Patriots couldn't pull off the victory Sunday. I would have loved to be in New Orleans a week from now chowing on some gumbo and [insert Mardi Gras reference here]. But you won't see me shouting "the sky is falling" like so many other Patriots fans tend to do after these losses.
So without further ado, I present three positives, or happy alternative thoughts, to take away from Sunday's game:
1. The Patriots Slowed Down Torrey Smith
The key to the game for the Patriots Sunday, as most including myself saw it, was for the Patriots to do everything in their power to take away Torrey Smith and the Ravens' deep passing attack. At the end of the day, the Patriots didn't allow a pass longer than 26 yards. The team matched up Alfonzo Dennard to Torrey Smith most of the day, and he did a phenomenal job, even after Aqib Talib left the game with injury. Consider what ESPN Boston's Field Yates had to say on Dennard's performance:
Entering the game, there might have been some thought that Torrey Smith matching up against Alfonzo Dennard would be an advantage for Baltimore, with Smith's blazing speed and size edge. But Dennard held his own on Sunday, showing a good ability to be physical at the line of scrimmage in his jams, while also not falling off of his line in his backpedal and sticking to a receiver. Smith was kept in relative check, catching four passes for 69 yards, and Dennard's effort was a part of slowing the speedster down.
I don't know about you, but following Dennard's game on Sunday, I'm feeling quite confident about his ability to be a longterm fixture at the cornerback position for the Patriots. Look, the Patriots pass defense was awful in the second half on Sunday. But I think one of the main reasons for that was that the injury to Aqib Talib forced a major shift in the team's philosophy (from more man to more off-man and soft-zone). And oh yeah, not to diminish his value to the team as a special teams asset, but Marquice Cole should never, ever, ever play a snap in the base defense for the Patriots again. Just never.
2. The Patriots Shut Down Ray Rice
19 carries for 48 yards. That was Ray Rice's line on Sunday. The Patriots did a great job shutting down the Ravens running attack, not allowing Rice to have a single carry over nine yards over the course of the game. One of the areas they did struggle, however, was covering the backs out of the backfield. Ravens backs combined for six receptions, helping Baltimore slowly carve up yards on their touchdown drives. You'll have to blame the linebackers there. Bernard Pierce also found some success running outside the tackles, as the Patriots struggled to set the edge at times. However, at the end of the day, anytime you can hold an elite back like Ray Rice to the above stat line, that has to be seen as a positive.
3. The Patriots Protected Tom Brady
This is a simple, but overlooked storyline for the Patriots on Sunday. The protection for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on Sunday against the Ravens was close to outstanding. Brady wasn't sacked once, and when he was hit, it was usually because of strong Ravens' coverage downfield more than his protection breaking down. Either way, when you can go an entire game against the Ravens' front without being sacked once, you're doing something right.
What to Make of All of This
I'm not trying to say the Patriots played good football on Sunday in the AFC Championship game. They obviously didn't. Their conservative play calling, inability to execute and finish drives, careless mistakes, and inability to adjust their gameplan were just a few of the many things that plagued the Patriots on Sunday.
But at the same time, when looking at the above three stats, you might be a bit surprised. If you told me before the game, that all of the above would happen and that the Patriots would have a significant advantage in total yards, starting field position, and red zone opportunities while playing with a lead at home at halftime in the AFC Championship, I would tell you that they would win 100% of the time. And I would tell you that without a hint of doubt in my mind, except for the fact that you would have asked me such a curiously specific question.
The bottom line is this - the Patriots went in with a plan, and they accomplished a lot of the things they sought to, except the big one: finishing the thing off and actually winning it. It was incredibly frustrating to see the Patriots move up and down the field time and time again, yet come up with zero points. It was like finding all the eggs on an Easter morning scavenger hunt, but not claiming your prize at the end (Like seriously, who wouldn't want the candy? Hard boiled eggs suck).
But that's the thing - the Ravens were able to claim that prize. They thoroughly outplayed the Patriots because they executed when things mattered most. They turned all of their red zone opportunities into touchdowns. They played turnover free football. They adjusted to what they saw and turned the game in their favor. They seized what was theirs, while the Patriots toiled between the thirties. The Ravens are moving on to the Super Bowl because of all of this. And for the Patriots and their fans, it's going to be another long offseason. But hey, cheer up, I'm here for the ride with you. And don't forget, I'm an optimist.