It ended with a collective sigh of relief.
On a night that bred the potential for overflowing bravado, the best that can be said for the New England Patriots is that they survived their blunders.
The Baltimore Ravens don’t have that luxury.
For all we know, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh heeded Tom Brady’s advice from that night 23 months ago. Maybe the man has, indeed, studied the rule book since he watched his team roam around the Gillette Stadium turf like a group of lost puppies in the 2014 AFC divisional playoff, confused with unconventional — and now, illegal — formations that New England rode to the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl.
But if that’s the case, it didn’t help save him from any embarrassment that the Ravens waltzed into on Monday night.
After all, the Patriots’ 30-23 victory only ended as close as the score indicates partly because of rookie Cyrus Jones’ left foot, arguably the Ravens’ most valuable player of the game. But as if that weren’t enough, Bill Belichick’s patron saint of special teams, Matthew Slater, muffed the following attempt, helping to deliver 14 gifted points to the Ravens, who, frankly, had already made enough of their own mistakes to welcome the Secret Santa exchange, and that’s not even with mention of Brady’s first red-zone interception of the year.
“We kind of had some self-inflicted errors out there,” Brady said after the game. “There were plenty of those. But I’m glad we found a way to win.”
There’s plenty enough to blame on the Ravens here too, a matter that Harbaugh and company will probably look to the rule book to change at some point during the offseason.
The Patriots opened the scoring with a well-executed safety in the first quarter. They made all-world kicker Justin Tucker suffer his first miss of the season when linebacker Shea McClellin pulled off a leaping block that further distanced fans from their fondest of Jamie Collins memories. And as if that weren’t enough to rankle Harbaugh on the sideline at Gillette Stadium, the Ravens’ coach had to watch a flea flicker confuse his defense in the third quarter, probably wondering how in the world that’s still a legal play in this day and age of the NFL.
Oh, there was also the tiny matter of leaving Patriots receiver Chris Hogan wide open for a 79-yard touchdown pass with about six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, morphing a three-point contest into a 10-point cushion for New England. I’m confident the NFL’s competition committee will do something about that though during the offseason.
Brady, meanwhile, went and threw for 406 yards on a defense that came into the game as the NFL’s top-ranked group.
It’s a convenient set of circumstances that brought the Ravens to Foxborough only one day after the sequel to Deflategate lasted about as long the second Caddyshack managed in theaters about 30 years ago. Leave it to the NFL though, in all its collective duplicity and with the protective blankets cast upon anyone in the old boys network that still runs the league, to bury the story as quickly as it could gain steam after Fox’s Jay Glazer reported it Sunday morning. If, indeed, the New York Giants did find PSI readings off from NFL standards during last weekend’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the league helped squash any controversy immediately, denying that any formal complaint had been made, while likely sending a bluetooth back massager from The Shaper Image to Giants owner John Mara’s front door.
Of course, many presume it was the Ravens who blew some sort of Deflategate whistle on the Patriots in the wake of their playoff loss two seasons ago, particularly after the way Baltimore was embarrassed and ridiculed by Brady in his post-game press conference, during which he pleaded with Ravens personnel to study the rule book more intently.
Lot of good that did the Ravens on Monday night, even if they did manage to score on two of the Patriots’ three turnovers.
“It was a big game for us,” Brady said. “You play at home in December on a Monday night, against a great defense, it was important for us to come out and play well.
“I think there were some plays that we wish we all had back, but they’re a competitive team, they force you into some errors, and it was great to finish the game with the ball in our hands.”
The Ravens are 7-6, currently sitting outside of the AFC playoff picture, while the Patriots are now 11-2, owning the best record in the conference and the top seed. Win out and home-field advantage is theirs for January, a matter that ended up dooming their Super Bowl run last January.
So, as luck would have it, here comes next weekend’s trip to Denver, the place where Stephen Gostkowski discovered the yips, and Brady’s inability to complete a two-point conversion looms as the most recent memory for the Patriots.
Maybe the playoff demons won’t lurk nearly one year later like they seemed to for the Ravens on Monday night.
It’s probably still a sure bet that Harbaugh is going to eliminate the ability to leapfrog the line like McClellin did on his punt block though. Didn’t see that in the rules anywhere.
(Also, is he interested in acquiring one, Cyrus Jones?)