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I don’t really know any other way to say it: The Patriots played their worst game of the season on offense and defense, weren’t exactly helped out by the coaches, still had multiple chances to be in the game at the end, and failed to take advantage.
The result, a 28-13 loss to the Ravens in the AFC Championship game Sunday night, was, in short, a mess. Basically, everyone but special teams deserves part of the blame.
The question the Patriots will be asking themselves all season will be: Why? Why, in the biggest game of the season?
There’s no easy answer. From my standpoint, a lack of depth at the offensive skill positions, cornerback, and defensive line left the Patriots vulnerable against a worthy opponent who could stare them in the eye and not make the big mistake. Combine those things with some disappointing play by key young players, and you have a foul-smelling loss in your own house.
The biggest problems:
■ On offense, we heard all season about how the Patriots were going to be better because they were more committed to the run, and would be able to run when it was needed late in the season. Against the weaker, less physical teams in the regular season? Sure.
When it counted, the Patriots failed big-time. For the first time all season, the Patriots didn’t record a single explosive run of more than 10 yards. They had averaged 3.4 in the previous 17 games.
What made it even worse is that Baltimore absolutely dared the Patriots to run, and they couldn’t and wouldn’t. The Ravens played just three snaps of base defense, and their nickel (five defensive backs) the rest of the time. This is when the Patriots were supposed to punish the opponent for doing that. They ran 22 times against the Ravens’ nickel and averaged 3.6 yards per carry. That’s fairly pathetic.
So that means the Ravens could take care of the run while in their preferred pass defense. Tom Brady might as well have had one hand tied behind his back.
A team has to make an opponent respect the run. The Patriots never did. The big reason? The subpar run blocking from their three tight ends: Aaron Hernandez, Michael Hoomanawanui, and, to a lesser extent, Daniel Fells (who held his own). Hernandez and Hoomanawanui took turns getting rag-dolled up front.
Boy, did the Patriots miss their ultimate physical offensive weapon, tight end Rob Gronkowski, in the most physical game of the season. In the games before Gronkowski got hurt, the Patriots averaged 4.1 explosive runs per game. After: 2.1.
■ In the passing game, the Patriots allowed 19 total quarterback pressures: zero sacks, 12 hurries, and seven knockdowns. A whopping 5.5 were the responsibility of right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, three were schemed free players by the Ravens, and two were on Brady trying to keep plays alive.
■ Then there was the sequence before halftime, when Hernandez made the mistake of not going out of bounds with 26 seconds left, costing the Patriots their second timeout. Brady then made a poor choice not throwing the ball away — it was only first down — and it was compounded by Bill Belichick not taking an immediate timeout with 19 seconds left. All that was missing was an interception in the end zone and you’d have had the Seattle debacle again.
■ Defensively, the loss of cornerback Aqib Talib obviously had an impact. How much? It’s impossible to say.
It looked like the Patriots were going to be selective matching him up, as he was on the left side on four of his six passes before leaving with a thigh injury (on a fifth, the Ravens didn’t have any receivers on Talib’s side so he moved over with Alfonzo Dennard on the right).
It would not have made a difference on the Ravens’ first-half touchdown drive when they threw just one pass to a receiver. The other five passes went to tight ends and running backs. The Patriots just got their butts kicked down the field.
A few questions remain regarding the adjustments: If Marquice Cole was such a problem on Anquan Boldin, why did it take the Patriots until there was 8:27 left and the score was 28-13 for New England to match up Dennard on Boldin? The game was over then. The Patriots should have considered two other moves: inserting Patrick Chung at safety and moving Devin McCourty to cornerback to give them some height (the Ravens weren’t making big plays in the wind); or putting tight end defender Tavon Wilson (who played safety and cornerback in college) on Boldin, who is basically a tight end, and removing Cole.
I know the Patriots’ mantra is to not give up the big play, but they were too conservative considering the elements.Continued...