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The Baltimore Ravens saw the trepidation, the uncertainty, the confusion. And what they sensed most from the Patriots in the darkness at Gillette Stadium on Sunday night was something we have not witnessed for a very long time.
And so it ends this time the way it has ended many times before in recent years, with the Patriots succumbing to a tougher, more physical team in the late stages of the NFL postseason. The most glaring difference this time was that the Patriots wilted on their own field in a 28-13 defeat that saw them bleached by a 21-0 score in the second half of the AFC Championship Game, the Ravens rocking New England's world so repeatedly that the Patriots seemed stripped of their will.
No excuses this Monday, Patriots fans. No talk of Rob Gronkowski's arm, of Aqib Talib's hamstring, of Chandler Jones' ankle. Baltimore has had more than its share of issues this year. The Ravens still came into Foxborough on Sunday, shook the Patriots' hands at the coin toss, then punched New England squarely in the face.
And the Patriots just took it.
"They're a good team," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady told reporters following Sunday's defeat. "Theyíre a good defense and they kept the pressure on and we just didnít really stand up to the challenge."
Nice summation there.
We just didn't really stand up to the challenge..
The injuries? Of course they were a factor. They always are. They were a factor in the divisional playoffs, too, when the Patriots dismantled the Houston Texans by a 41-28 score despite the early loss of both Gronkowski and running back Danny Woodhead. In mid-game, the Patriots seamlessly transitioned and smacked the Texans around anyway, largely because New England was the tougher, more confident team.
So this time the Patriots lost Talib and, later, Stevan Ridley, the latter courtesy of a bone-jarring collision with safety Bernard Pollard, who is racking up knockouts in this state as if he were Rocky Marciano. Four years ago it was Brady in the season opener. Last year it was Gronkowski in the AFC Championship. This year it was Ridley, who was knocked so loopy that he literally gave away the football.
As for Wes Welker's well-documented drop on third-and-8 at the Baltimore 25-yard line in what was then a 13-7 Patriots' lead, it came three plays after Pollard was flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit on - you guessed it - Welker, resulting in a 39-yard Patriots gain that was part Brady-to-Welker (24 yards) and part yellow flag (15 yards). Were the penalty and drop connected? You be the judge. But it certainly appeared as if Welker peeked to see if there was another train coming his way.
Amid it all, some of those most glaring examples of trepidation and panic came from none other than the coach and quarterback, each among the accomplished men in history at his trade. For all of the talk about how the Patriots "moved" the ball against the Ravens in the first half, the Patriots got inside the Baltimore 34-yard line just three times in the first three quarters - when it was still a game - and all three produced points.
On two other occasions, however, Belichick punted once from the 35-yard line (on fourth-and-9) and once from the Baltimore 34 (on fourth-and-8). Field goal attempts were admittedly out of the question because of a strong wind in the Patriots' face, but remember: this is the same Belichick who went for it on fourth-and-13 from the New York Giants' 31-yard-line in Super Bowl XLII.
Five years later, Belichick is now playing field position and trying to win a war by just sitting in a foxhole.
Brady, meanwhile, looked like a rattled Matt Schaub in the closing moments of the first half, though he alone was not to blame. With 34 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Brady completed a short pass near the right sideline to Aaron Hernandez, who could have easily stepped out of bounds near the Baltimore 10-yard line. Instead, Hernandez tried to turn upfield and score, costing the Patriots a timeout. The blunder only grew in magnitude when Brady scrambled and slid on the next play, eschewing the Patriots' last timeout( which they were presumably saving for a field goal attempt) in hopes of spiking the ball. Brady ended up burning the timeout anyway ... with four seconds left.
And so, instead of having two shots at the end zone against a stingy Baltimore defense, the Patriots had to settle for a field goal and a 13-7 lead when they might have been up by two scores.
"I thought we could get up there, or we wanted to try to get up there and clock it and have time to run a play - and have the timeout to kick the field goal," Belichick explained.
Countered Brady, " Well, we had one timeout left so we were trying to save that for the field goal. I would have loved to get the touchdown there, but we settled for the field goal to go up, whatever it was, 13-7 at the half. We felt pretty good about where we were at halftime, but we just didnít come out in the second half and execute very well."
No, guys. You botched it. Plain and simple. You screwed up.
Beyond all of that, perhaps the greatest indictment of the Patriots came following the game, during Brady's (very) brief question-and-answer session with reporters. More than anyone, of course, Brady, and, for that matter, Belichick knows what championship football looks and feels like. The Patriots won three Super Bowls in four years because they were tougher, more disciplined and more poised than the opposition, and the Patriots in this game were none of those.
Reporter: After the season opener, you said the toughness of the team is defined by being able to run the ball when they know itís coming. Do you feel that you guys were able to do that tonight? There were a lot of third-and-2 and second-and-2 [situations] where you guys were in shotgun and throwing it.
Brady: I'd have to see the film, but whatever we did, we didn't execute very well. The name of the game is execution and if you donít execute well against a good team, like I said, you're not going to come up on the winning end.
Don't bother with the film, Tom. As if you really need to. We saw it and you know it.
You all looked scared.
Tony's Top 5
NFL story lines in 2012
Replacement referees Think they had a negative impact? Take away that Hail Mary against Seattle and the Packers have a bye, the Seahawks are out, Bears are in.
The Colts They released Peyton Manning, drafted Andrew Luck, temporarily lost their coach to cancer. And they made the playoffs.
Rookie QBs Along with Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson are in the playoffs. Maybe the best QB draft since 1983.
Adrian Peterson Fine, it's a quarterback league. But his story is almost every bit as good as Manning's.
Peyton Manning So why is Manning No. 1? Because he changed teams. Many thought he was done. He's not.
Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".
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