FOXBOROUGH — It was going to be tough enough beating the Ravens in the AFC Championship game. But two early injuries to the Patriots’ defense made the challenge that much greater.
Defensive tackle Kyle Love left the game in the first quarter with a knee injury, and did not return. Not long after, cornerback Aqib Talib left with a right thigh injury, and also did not return. Talib came back to the sideline, helmet off, trying to see if he was healthy enough to play. Not long after, he was seen sitting down, heavy coat draped over his uniform. His night was over.
Talib’s acquisition Nov. 1 coincided with the Patriots starting to play better defensively, especially in the secondary. His absence in Sunday’s 28-13 AFC Championship game loss was definitely felt.
“It always affects you when a starter goes out, you practice something all week with guys in there, but that’s football,” said safety Devin McCourty. “We were ready to make adjustments, we made the adjustments once ‘Qib went down, and it just came down to executing.”
With a lingering injury to defensive end Chandler Jones, who left the divisional round playoff opener with an ankle and played sparingly against the Ravens, it left the Patriots thin up front. Justin Francis, an undrafted rookie, got the start in Jones’s place at defensive end — the first of his career — and Brandon Deaderick took over for Love inside.
Talib’s injury was even more damaging, considering the Ravens’ big-play receivers. Kyle Arrington came in for Talib and spent the bulk of the game covering Baltimore deep threat Torrey Smith.
“We had to make some adjustments,” coach Bill Belichick said. “When Kyle went out and when Talib went out, we had to make some adjustments. But that’s the National Football League.”
Arrington played well in Talib’s place; Smith was limited to four catches for 69 yards.
Patrick Chung left the game briefly in the first half with an injury, but he returned not long after. Rob Ninkovich went out late in the fourth quarter, and was also able to come back.
Ridley run down
Running back Stevan Ridley had a game-high 70 yards on 18 carries, but lost a fourth-quarter fumble when Bernard Pollard crashed into his helmet, which jarred the ball loose and appeared to knock Ridley out cold. The play came with the Patriots trailing, 21-13, and more than 12 minutes left. The ball was recovered by Baltimore defensive end Arthur Jones — Chandler’s brother — and the Ravens took advantage of the short field, punching it in for another touchdown that extended their lead to 28-13.
Since the play resulted in a change of possession, it was reviewed by referee Bill Leavy, who was asked after the game by a pool reporter what he saw under the hood.
“What I saw was the receiver was going to the ground, had both legs off the ground, no body part was on the ground,” Leavy said. “The ball hit his knee and dislodged from his hand before the rest of his body hit the ground, therefore it was a fumble and we confirmed it.”
Ridley left the game with a head injury and did not return.
It seemed there was some clock mismanagement for the Patriots at the end of the first half. There were 34 seconds on the clock when Tom Brady found Aaron Hernandez for a 17-yard reception on third down, giving New England first-and-goal from the 10.
But Hernandez didn’t go out of bounds, forcing the Patriots to call a timeout with 26 seconds to go. Brady scrambled for 3 yards on first down, but with the clock running, New England waited too long to call another timeout.
The clock ran down to four seconds and there was no choice but to go for the field goal and get the almost-assured points given the distance of the kick.
The Patriots went into the locker room up, 13-7, though it could have been 17-7.
“We had one timeout left so we were trying to save that for the field goal,” Brady explained. “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 didn’t come out in the second half and execute very well.”
Belichick also did not seem bothered postgame about a likely missed opportunity.
“No, not really,” he said when asked if the Patriots thought about calling a timeout immediately after Brady’s scramble. “I thought we could get up there [to the line of scrimmage] 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.
“I guess if we had known that it would take as long as it did to get the ball finally clocked, but then we didn’t get a great look on the play.”Continued...