FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots were beaten handily by the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, losing, 28-13, in the AFC Championship game. But one could still argue that the game would have turned out dramatically different had the home team capitalized on some key plays and executed better down the stretch.
There were numerous plays left on the field. There’s no going back now, but let’s highlight a few things that wrong in this week’s takeaways.
1. Time management was an issue — Tom Brady and Bill Belichick did their best to deflect the issue, but they had a problem toward the end of the first half managing the clock and burned all three timeouts at the end of the game, much too soon for any comeback effort. But the events at the end of the first half were particularly troubling. The Patriots were driving down the field, only 10 yards away from the end zone, with 26 seconds left. Brady couldn’t find a receiver, so he scrambled for 3 yards and then tried to gather his teammates to attempt another play before realizing too much time had passed. He had to use the Patriots’ final timeout of the half with only four seconds on the clock. Either Belichick or Brady should have immediately called a timeout after the play to preserve an opportunity to take a shot at the end zone. With only four seconds on the clock, they were forced to take the field goal. A touchdown would’ve changed the dynamic of the game and given the Patriots more confidence going into the second half.
2. Wes Welker’s drop deflated a perfectly good drive — The second half wasn’t kind to the Patriots. They were outscored, 21-0, a remarkable display given the team’s standing as the top offense in the league. Drive after drive, the Patriots were stumped by their own ineptitude. In the third quarter, they had a particularly good stretch that was mucked up by an all-too familiar episode of Welker’s dropsies. (Forgive him, he was getting knocked around pretty good out there.) The Patriots had drove 57 yards to the Baltimore 34 and were facing third and 8 when Brady threw a pass that hit Welker in the hands and face mask. It would’ve given the Patriots a first down and possibly the opportunity to extend their lead. Instead, because of the fourth down and the windy conditions, they elected to punt. Which brings me to my next takeaway.
3. The Patriots punted from the Ravens’ 34-yard line — Zoltan Mesko recorded a 21-yard punt, pinning the Ravens at their 13-yard line, in the third quarter in one of the more confusing plays of the evening. At that distance, Stephen Gostkowski would have attempted a 52-yard field goal. But because of the wind, moving at about 17 miles per hour, it forced Belichick into one of the more conservative play calls we’ve seen in some time. Gostkowski’s longest made field goal this season was from 53 yards, with room to spare. It was clear by the call on the field that the Patriots did not want to kick into the wind, which made Welker’s drop all the more glaring. The Ravens responded with a 10-play, 87-yard drive to take the lead, which they never relinquished.
4. In the fourth quarter, Brady made one horrible decision — In the Patriots’ second offensive series of the final quarter, Brady did his best to find a groove. He completed 6 of 8 passes before facing a third and 4 at the Baltimore 19-yard line. Again, the Patriots were in the red zone with an opportunity to bring the game within a touchdown. On third down, Brady couldn’t connect with Welker, who was hounded on the sideline. Instead of taking the field goal, the Patriots elected to go for it on fourth down with 8:35 left. It was a gutsy move, but necessary. Brady dropped back and was flushed out of the pocket to his left by Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. With open field in front of him and a practically guaranteed first down, he decided to throw it across his body to the middle of the end zone in a desperation pass to Deion Branch. That was the moment I knew the Patriots had lost. He should’ve taken the first down that was right in front of him.
5. Injuries had a large impact — Belichick won’t admit it, but losing both Kyle Love and Aqib Talib was a big deal. Add in Patrick Chung, who was hurt on the Ravens’ goal-line touchdown in the second quarter, and the Patriots were practically in disarray on defense. They were forced to utilize Marquice Cole as their nickel corner and Tavon Wilson in their dime packages. Meanwhile, Brandon Deaderick took the bulk of the snaps at defensive tackle and Jermaine Cunningham (sized more like a linebacker than a defensive lineman) subbed in to help out up front. The Patriots were undersized and outclassed in key matchups. Cole was beaten easily by Anquan Boldin for a touchdown. He played well in spurts, as did Cunningham, but the Patriots needed their stars to win this game and it’s certainly a sore feeling to know that they weren’t available at the end.