The better team won.
It's true. The Ravens were a better team than the Patriots when they won the AFC Championship game 28-13 on Sunday at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. And by virtue of that, they are the better team, period. Hopefully Pats' fans won't engage in the silly argument that even though their team wasn't better on Sunday, it's still better overall. That stuff should have been retired back when the Pittsburgh Steelers tried to claim it after both times the Pats blew them out on their home field the AFC Championships, circa 2002 and 2005.
The Pats split Sunday's game in half, the first in which they blew chance after chance after chance to score points and put some serious distance between themselves and the Ravens, and the second, in which Baltimore adjusted, opened things up a little bit and blew the stagnant Pats right off their own home field.
That's pretty much the entire game in a nutshell, The Pats failed to make a significant play all evening on either side of the ball or make any real adjustments to their game plan at halftime after a litany of missed opportunities. The Ravens, who only called for 12 pass plays in the first half, saw that the Pats had lost No. 1 corner/key to the entire pass defense Aqib Talib and took advantage, shredding the home team, which not only got zero pressure on Ravens' QB Joe Flacco but allowed 21 unanswered points, an occurrence that was equally the fault of Tom Brady and the offense. The Pats lost by double digits for the first time since November, 2010, and were blanked in a half for the first time since September, 2009. Ouch.
Nothing went right for the Pats in this one. The key to their explosiveness on offense, a commitment to balance via the running game, was mostly an afterthought. They failed to force a single turnover after leading the league in that category by a wide mile all year long. Their offensive skill players dropped too many passes. They continuously made strange or flat out incorrect decisions, from punting twice inside the Ravens' 35-yard line, to spreading out and taking shots downfield on consecutive 3rd and short situations in the first half, to their ghastly clock management at the end of that half, which may have cost them a TD and was the final extra breath they gave the Ravens, who looks like a tired team on its heels at that point.
The game was an out-and-out disaster for the Pats, who saw their season come to an end short of their ultimate goal once again, for the eighth consecutive year. They were certainly complicit in the loss, but all credit goes to the Ravens, who diagnosed the events of the first half and promptly beat the crap out of them. They deserve a hearty congratulations, even no-class boor Terrell Suggs and the ultimate clown, Ray Lewis.
So with that, let's get into the final report card of the season, with the promise that it will be done in as painless a fashion as is possible.
Never mind Brady's final numbers, which will tell you he passed for 320 yards. He was awful, failing to ever get himself or his team into any kind of rhythm that lasted more than a few plays at a time, and making what, for him, was nearly a season's worth of bad decisions. Obviously, the failure to call a timeout in the closing seconds of the first half in order to get one more shot at the end zone before a field goal attempt was the one that stood out (and should be equally the fault of coach Bill Belichick), but it wasn't the only one. In the fourth quarter, after the Ravens had gone up 28-13, Brady led the Pats right down the field to the red zone in seven plays before failing to complete three straight passes with just four more yards needed for a first down. Worse, on 4th and 4, he took off to run for what looked like a very attainable first down, even for someone as slow as he is, but instead of taking the few extra strides of mostly open field, he got greedy, pulled up right at the line of scrimmage and threw a low percentage pass across his body into the end zone roughly three yards from any receiver in the area (the only one who anywhere near the pass, Deion Branch, was also double covered). It wasn't the first time in the game that he tried to bite off more than he could chew. The Pats failed to convert three straight 3rd and 2s in the first half, all in Ravens' territory, the second and third of which saw Brady try to throw the ball down the field (both times into coverage) instead of checking it underneath just to pick up a first down and keep the drive alive. And he also consistently failed to adjust to the Ravens' frequently tipping or batting down passes at the line of scrimmage, one of which cost him a crucial interception that for all intents and purposes sealed the game for the Ravens with 7:25 left in the fourth quarter. Brady has not been great in playoff games for a few years now. He's had some good ones but just as many not-so-good ones and this game was among the worst. What was more troubling about this one wasn't the lack of production, it was the decision making. As great as he's been in the regular season, games like Sunday's only fuel the argument that he's not the same guy he once was, if not simply in decline. It's too early to make either claim yet. But it's also tougher to argue against them than it was before this game.
Running Backs: 2.5
The Pats' longest run of the game by anyone was nine yards and it came on the play that saw Stevan Ridley knocked out cold in midair by Bernard Pollard (who else?), resulting in a massively costly fumble. Ridley carried 15 times for 70 yards before that hit knocked him from the game but even though the stat sheet says the Pats called for 26 run plays (plus two scrambles by Brady), and they had to throw more in the second half after falling behind, they never seemed to commit to running the ball they way they have in so many of their most dynamic offensive performances this season. Ridley was stuffed for no gain on the first of the the three failed 3rd and 2s on the Pats' first scoring drive on one of those quick snaps that almost always work. And after that was when it seemed like the run became less important. Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen, both of whom were as instrumental in the Pats getting this far as anyone, were barely heard from, combining for 10 total touches. Vereen had one of the crucial drops but up to that point, he hardly played. Some of this is game plan related; clearly Belichick, Josh McDaniels and the offensive staff thought the Ravens were vulnerable in coverage and could be beaten down the field. But along with that came the failure to recognize that the Pats' passing game, whether from tight or spread formations, always works best when the run is featured.
Wide Receivers: 2.5
Wes Welker is an indispensable member of this team and there is no scenario in which the Pats failing to re-sign him makes any sense. That being said, for the second straight year, in the biggest game of the season, he dropped a pass that wound up contributing mightily to costing the Pats a win. Early in the third quarter, with the Pats still ahead and after they'd stopped the Ravens on the first series of the second half, the Pats mounted a drive highlighted by an incredible catch by Welker on a perfect, missile of a throw by Brady while he was bracketed. The pass play went for 24 yards and 15 more were tacked on thanks to a helmet hit penalty on Pollard. Three snaps later, on 3rd and 8, Brady threw to Welker, who was wide open at the sticks. The ball clanged off his hands, the Pats punted, the Ravens went 87 yards in 10 plays to take the lead and they never looked back. Maybe Welker was dinged up from the hit by Pollard. Maybe he took his eyes off the ball for a split second and just dropped it. Regardless of the reason why it happened, it was another link in the very long chain of failed opportunities by the Pats. the difference in this one being it marked the time the Ravens would finally capitalize. Welker is arguably the best receiver who has ever played for the Patriots and he must be re-signed and paid handsomely. But even though he caught eight passes for 117 yards and the Pats' only TD, it was that drop that defined this game for him. Elsewhere, Brandon Lloyd had a nice game (seven catches, 70 yards) but was quiet in the second half and also had a key drop. And Branch pitched in a couple of catches too. The bottom line here is, if Welker hangs on to that pass, this grade is higher and the outcome of the game may well be different too.
Tight Ends: 3
It would have been nice to see Aaron Hernandez get out of bounds on his 17 yard catch at the end of the first half. He cut back toward the middle of the field in an attempt to get more yardage and while that move got him to the Baltimore 10 instead of stopping the clock at the 12, the Pats had to use a timeout there, their second, which set the stage for the confusion and ultimately, the botched clock management at the tail end of the half. Like everyone else, Hernandez was strangely quiet in the second half with just two of his nine catches and 16 of his 83 yards. Hernandez deserves so much credit for trying to gut out the ankle injury he suffered in Week 2 throughout the season. He was never quite himself until last week against Houston and even then and on Sunday, he was never able to truly be the force he's capable of being when both he and Rob Gronkowski are healthy and operating at peak efficiency. Hernandez is a very good player and worthy of the contract extension he signed last summer. It will be fun to watch next season when he and Gronk are both 100 percent. In other news, if you didn't even realize that Michael Hoomanawanui or Daniel Fells were even active, that's OK. Neither did anyone else.
Offensive Line: 3.5
Not a bad game for this group but not the kind of all-around, dominant performance submitted last week by a long shot. There were too many negative plays in the running game, including that first missed 3rd and 2. Nate Solder had a crushing holding penalty in the third quarter that wiped out a critical third down conversion right after the Ravens went up 14-13. Brady wasn't sacked but he was knocked down seven times. All of which equals nothing more than a fine, normal performance. Given the fact that the most consternation of any aspect of this team prior to the season centered on the O-line, its performance on the whole this year was fantastic. Brian Waters never did show up but this group barely missed a beat despite injury problems all year. Ryan Wendell is a star at center, Solder improved greatly from his rookie season, Sebastian Vollmer was playing like an All-Pro prior to hurting his back in November (and was still very good for the most part afterward). And Logan Mankins remains as tough, as strong and as good as any interior lineman in the league. The Pats should feel good about the foundation this group provides going forward.
Defensive Line: 3
Outside of a couple of negative plays forced by Rob Ninkovich, it was a pretty humdrum night for the D-line, which lost Kyle Love in the first half, rendering in part Vince Wilfork being less of a factor than he's been. Wilfork was mostly invisible save for one near sack of Flacco on a rare occasion that the Pats actually got pressure on the Baltimore QB. And while the run defense was decent (Ray Rice needed 19 attempts to gain 48 yards), there were too many missed tackles and as good as the work against Rice was, the other Ravens' back, rookie Bernard Pierce, was huge, outgaining Rice by 10 yards on 10 fewer attempts. The key to controlling the Ravens' passing game isn't necessarily playing nickel and dime looks deep down the field, it's getting Flacco off of his spot or forcing him to make plays on the move. The Pats couldn't do any of that, so concerned about that deep ball that they rarely blitzed and got nowhere near making Flacco the least bit uncomfortable. It would have helped if Chandler Jones had been healthy enough to play more than two snaps. But it probably won't surprise anyone to know that the only time since Thanksgiving that the Pats got as little pressure on the opposing QB as they did on Sunday was against the 49ers, the only other game they lost over that stretch.
As has been pointed out repeatedly in this space all season long, the Pats are in big trouble when their linebackers have to cover backs and tight ends in the middle of the field and Sunday was no exception. Brandon Spikes seemed to make strides in that aspect of his game as the season went on but he was lost in this game, losing both Rice and tight end Dennis Pitta on separate occasions and giving up chunks of yardage in the process. Surprisingly, the Ravens didn't really start trying to take advantage of all the room the Pats left in the middle of the field until the second half; otherwise the game could have turned much more quickly. For all of their ability, both Spikes and Dont'a Hightower are relatively slow which means they both need to figure out how to cover in spite of their lack of speed. Both of them are still young, especially Hightower, so there's no reason to assume they can't develop in that regard. It needs to happen though; the Pats are just too vulnerable in that area as is. Jerod Mayo had an incredible hit on Pitta in the third quarter and also just missed Flacco on one other play but otherwise a usual, Jerod Mayo type game. A lot of tackles, good hustle and effort, little impact.
Defensive Backs: 2.5
Talib's injury killed the Pats. Of all the major injuries they had to contend with up to and throughout this game (Gronk, Jones, Love, Ridley), Talib's was the biggest. He was able to make a couple of plays before pulling up on the Pats' third defensive series of the game and never returned. The Pats didn't change the game plan afterward, they just moved Kyle Arrington back outside and inserted Marquice Cole in the slot and after getting away with it for the remainder of the first half, they were shredded after that. Alfonzo Dennard had a very good game, sliding comfortably into the No. 1 chair after Talib went out and making some plays. But after that, no one really stepped up and when Flacco started to target receiver Anquan Boldin (two TDs) when Cole was anywhere near him in the second half, it was all over. Again, the fact that the front seven generated next to no pressure hardly helped on the back end. And when the Ravens realized they could make plays in the middle of the field, that loosened up the back even more. This secondary, which was solidified big time when Talib arrived, will almost definitely be worked on even more in the off-season. Should Talib be re-signed (and that's a big if), the priority will simply be improving depth. Because even though this group only lost one man on Sunday, it was one man too many.
Special Teams/Intangibles/Coaching: 2.5
Great day for our man Zoltan, who dropped four of his five punts inside the Baltimore 20 and executed each of the short-field pooch kicks he was asked to make flawlessly. Stephen Gostkowski made both of his field goal attempts but had a couple of short-ish kickoffs even when not kicking into the wind. There were a couple of special teams penalties but the kick coverage issues from the Houston game were cleaned up.
As for Belichick and staff, it wasn't their best day. One decision after another, whether in game or prior to it, was questionable beginning with the short field punts, all of which could be defended by pointing out the wind factor but smacked of a conservative, playing-not-to-lose approach, and going on from there.
Why were the Pats so quick to go away from the run on so many drives? Even if it wasn't resulting in a high yards per attempt number, sticking with it surely would have softened up the coverage down the field and made throwing the ball at least somewhat easier. Why didn't they blitz more? Were they that concerned about the deep ball and single coverage? And how did they screw up the clock that badly at the end of the first half? It was reminiscent of and probably worse than the similar mistake they made in the loss to Seattle back in October.
It's not Belichick's fault that there were so many dropped passes or that often times, Brady had all day to throw but either couldn't find anyone open or made the wrong decision. Nor is it his fault that the defense failed to force a turnover for the first time in what seems like forever. Nor is it his fault that Flacco, who now has eight TDs against zero picks in these playoffs and had outplayed Brady the last three times these two teams have met. Well, maybe that is partly his fault.
It was an uncharacteristic game from the best coach in NFL history, especially after his foxhole comment made prior to the game against Houston. The Pats seemed reluctant to attack at times and were just not as aggressive as one might expect at others. That, combined with the fact that the Ravens seem to have Brady's number and he has a very difficult time adjusting to what they show him along with all of the injuries and it was too much. The Ravens outplayed and outcoached the Pats in this one and that's why they won.
Next year, provided most of the main pieces stay healthy, the Pats should be even better than they've been the last three, a stretch that's netted them 40 wins, two AFC Championship appearances and a Super Bowl trip. Can they win it all next year? Who knows? It's far too soon to tell. But it'll be another hell of a ride finding out.
We'll see you then.