FOXBORO — When it came to the postseason, it was a walk that had seen a lot of misery.
For years after playoff games, teams that had come into Gillette Stadium had endured the gauntlet, a trail of tears that ran from the opposing sideline to the visitors locker room. Since Gillette Stadium opened in 2002, no team had ever made that walk during the playoffs as a winner.
When playoff time came around, some great teams and great players took that walk of shame on their way to the locker room. It was where fans gleefully chanted "Cut that meat!" at Peyton Manning and mocked LaDainian Tomlinson for sitting out most of the 2007 AFC Championship Game. In playoff games in Foxboro, the Patriots were 10 feet tall and bulletproof. There had been seven playoff games at Gillette, and all seven times New England fans had the opportunity to gleefully hoot their opponents into the offseason.
That all ended Sunday. The Ravens crushed the Patriots, 33-14, in an AFC wild card contest at Gillette Stadium (click here for the game recap). For the first time, the walk of shame became a point of pride for an opposing team. As he walked off, former Patriot Kelley Washington was enjoying himself at the expense of his old team, shouting to whoever would listen, “The era is over!” Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs told reporters moments after the game was over, “We knew we were going to come in here, beat them up, whip they ass, and leave.”
Suggs was right — the Ravens beat up on the Patriots. New England was dominated in all three phases of the game. Tom Brady turned over the ball three times. Baltimore running back Ray Rice finished with more rushing yards on Sunday (159) on his own than the Patriots had given up to any team all year. And New England yielded 24 points in the first quarter, the second-most productive offensive quarter by any team in postseason history and the worst defensive quarter for the Patriots in their playoff history.
“All of us that participated in the game are accountable for our performance, and I don’t think anybody felt good about it,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “Players, coaches, everybody.”
So many firsts on Sunday: The franchise suffered its first home playoff loss since 1978. The Patriots are one-and-done in the postseason for the first time in the Belichick era. Brady suffered the first postseason home defeat of his career. And the Patriots suffered the first loss in franchise history to Baltimore.
“They outplayed us. They outcoached us. They won the game convincingly,” Belichick said of the Ravens. “They deserve to move on.”
Sunday was a day of reflection on many levels. At halftime, the franchise produced a look back at the big games of the decade on the Jumbotron, and it’s amazing to think that only a handful of players (including some who may not be around next year, such as Kevin Faulk and Stephen Neal) remain from Super Bowl XXXVI.
With the close of a decade in which the Patriots enjoyed such a run of success — and with so many key personnel decisions looming on the horizon — does the fact that a team came into Gillette Stadium and walked away with a playoff win symbolize the end of an era for the franchise?
Brady doesn’t believe so.
“We have Mr. Kraft, [and] what he’s been able to do for the franchise, and coach Belichick, who is probably the greatest coach of all time, and some great core leaders,” Brady said. “We’ve got a lot of youth that are really good players and work hard. I certainly don’t think because we lose a couple of games this year that all of a sudden everything is over.
“It’s not like we were 2-14 — we’re not at that stage. It’s just there were things that showed up over the course of the year that we didn’t do very well.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday at Gillette Stadium:
EVEN TOM BRADY IS CAPABLE OF SUBMITTING A PLAYOFF STINKER
Entering this season, the quarterback had made the playoffs his personal playground. Coming into Sunday’s game, he was 14-3 in the postseason and 8-0 in playoff games in Foxboro. His 14 playoff wins rank second only to Joe Montana’s 16, and his three Super Bowl titles already have put him in the discussion as one of the best big-game quarterbacks of his era.
That all got turned around 180 degrees on Sunday. Brady turned the ball over four times (three interceptions, one fumble) and finished 23-of-42 for 154 yards in the worst playoff performance of his career. Unlike Vince Wilfork, he wasn’t shocked there were boos during the game.
“I’d have been booing us too, the way we played,” he said after the game.
That’s not to say the fault for the stagnant offense is all on Brady. Things started poorly for the quarterback, who was under heavy pressure from the start and threw two first quarter interceptions (one a horrible throw, the other a tipped pass). Things got worse after New England fell behind by 24 points and became a one-dimensional team that had to pass to try and get back into it.
“It’s a team effort — we would never try to place all that on Tom. Never,” said running back Fred Taylor, who had just two carries on the afternoon for a single yard. “We just didn’t play well today as a group. As an entire unit.”
The frustrating afternoon was the culmination of a long and challenging season for Brady, who worked hard to rebound from last year’s knee injury. At the same time, he dealt with tremendous change: There was a new offensive coordinator, as well as a maddening search for a No. 3 receiver that never really came to fruition.
In addition, a handful of new injuries cropped up over the course of the season, including a reported rib problem and finger issues that appeared to hamper his mechanics. Brady, however, refused to take the bait of offering injuries as an excuse for his performance.
"I just think injuries are a bunch of BS," he said. "I just think when you play, you play, and if you can’t play, you can’t play. But when you’re out there playing, you’ve got to play at the level that the team expects you to play.
“I think every year presents different challenges, and this one had its own set,” Brady said. “The mental toughness that we need to have to overcome whatever comes up, I think that’s going to be something we all need to improve on next year. [For] all the players and coaches, it’s very disappointing to lose like this and to really not put our best effort out there. I think we tried, but in terms of execution, it really wasn’t our best effort.
“It’s going to make for a long offseason, and that’s how it should be. I think we’ve always found ways to compete through January, and we’d love to get back to kind of that winning way next season.”
SOMETIMES, THE RETURN OF VINCE WILFORK AND TY WARREN DOESN’T MEAN MUCH
It was thought that the return of Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork and defensive lineman Ty Warren would provide a boost for the New England run defense, which had struggled without them for the last month. However, the battle up front was clearly won by the Ravens, who had little trouble manhandling the New England run defense.
The Ravens set the tone early up front — on their first play from scrimmage, Ray Rice went for an 83-yard touchdown, a play that was set up when Matt Birk knocked Wilfork off the ball, opening a lane for the record-setting run (it was the second-longest run in NFL postseason history).
“He found a crease and he hit it,” Wilfork said of Rice’s run to open the game. “He hit it hard. The first play of the game, you don't want to start out like that. He's already small. He found a crease where only he could see through it. Trust me. We looked at the film on the sideline and we couldn't believe he got through it. But he did.”
The Ravens continued to find creases for the rest of the afternoon, battering the Patriots front for 234 yards (4.5 yards per carry), the most any team posted on New England all season. That was thanks in large part to the mighty mite out of Rutgers. Rice had 109 yards at the half and 159 yards for the game — more rushing yards than any team got against the Patriots this season.
“They had no reason to do anything different from what they started the game doing,” Warren said of the Ravens, who started strong on the ground and kept after it all day. “When you jump out the way they did, you pretty much stick with what you’re doing. The cushion on the scoreboard allows you to do that. On the flip side, that’s what we’ve done around here in years prior to now. But they definitely did a good job of doing it. And why would they change?”
AFTER BEING SOLID ALL SEASON, THE PROTECTION AROUND BRADY FELL APART ON SUNDAY
The Patriots were able to do an excellent job of keeping Brady upright the whole season (he took a season-low 16 sacks this year), but they did a poor job on Sunday, with the worst moment coming with just over 10 minutes left in the nightmare of a first quarter. On a first-and-10 at the New England 21, Brady dropped back and Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis came flying up the middle. Running back Laurence Maroney offered only a cursory push of Lewis, doing little to hinder the linebacker's path to the quarterback. Brady was crushed, setting up a second and long, which was followed two plays later by a Chris Hanson punt.
Brady was sacked three times on the afternoon. There was the first-quarter sack on which Lewis used Maroney as a speed bump, another first-quarter sack from Terrell Suggs that ended with a strip sack and fumble, and a third-quarter sack by safety Dawan Landry. The three sacks tied a season-high against the Patriots (matching, not coincidentally, a mark that came earlier in the season at the hands of this same Baltimore team).
“Anytime you can get to a guy like Tom Brady, a quarterback that doesn’t want to move, and you can make him move, you’ve got a chance,” said Baltimore defensive end Trevor Pryce. “We had a lot of pressure and he had to get rid of the ball quickly. It doesn’t always mean you tackle him, but it means you get close enough to rattle him and make him make a decision very quickly.”
THE PATRIOTS PASSING GAME HAS BECOME TOO DEPENDENT ON WES WELKER
It’s something we’ve all suspected for a long time now, but it was really brought to light on Sunday, when the New England passing game looked lost without No. 83. Rookie Julian Edelman did as well as could be expected, finishing with six catches for 44 yards, and Faulk brought a consistency out of the backfield that was too little, too late (6 catches, 37 yards).
But there seemed to be little sense of spacing among the receivers — there appeared to be very few open areas downfield. In addition, without Welker’s presence underneath, the Ravens were free to focus on Moss, and rendered him completely irrelevant (five catches, 48 yards). The rest of the receivers — Sam Aiken, Benjamin Watson and Chris Baker all had one catch each, while Sammy Morris had three receptions in garbage time — did little to inspire confidence.
“When you lose a guy like Welker, that has something to do with it,” Pryce said of New England’s offensive struggles.
“All those guys worked hard,” Brady said of the receivers that were out there on Sunday. “We just kept trying to find different ways to make it work and the guys that were in there today all worked really hard: Sam and Julian — the improvement that both those guys made over the course of the year — and Randy [Moss], how important he is to this team. It certainly wasn’t a lack of hard work on everybody’s part. I think we obviously have a long way to go this offseason as a team.”
THERE SHOULD BE NO DEBATE AS TO THE WORTH OF KEVIN FAULK
The veteran running back (the only guy on the roster who pre-dates Belichick in Foxboro) was one of only a few offensive skill position players who showed up on Sunday. The undersized Faulk had a team-high 52 yards on the ground to go along with 37 receiving yards. He was the only consistent offensive presence the Patriots had and one of the only players who was showing any fight on the field. At one point, he was spotted on the sideline gathering the offensive starters together and giving them an earful.
It was a good year for Faulk, who tied for third on the team in receptions over the course of the regular season and added 335 receiving yards. Faulk is a free agent at the end of the season, and his leadership and production would be difficult to match, especially with the uncertain future of Welker.
Would he want to return?
“I don’t think that’s a question you need to ask me. It’s not up to me,” said Faulk, who is the senior member on the roster. “I’ve been here 11 years. It’s like home. Why would I want to leave? My kids love it here, my wife loves it here. Why would I want to leave?”
THERE ARE NO PLAYMAKERS ON THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE
Again, it was a problem that was lurking beneath the surface for much of the season that was made all too evident on Sunday. While New England was unable to get a big play to help stem the tide, the presence of Ed Reed on the other side of the ball underscored the fact that the Patriots now rarely — if ever — have the sort of defensive player who can change the game with a single play.
Reed, who had been hobbled with a groin injury over the late stages of the season and was something of a question mark coming into the game, was able to pick off a pass on a tipped ball and take it 25 yards deeper into New England territory, setting up a 27-yard field goal late in the first quarter that made it 24-0. It was Reed’s sixth interception in six career postseason contests.
Meanwhile, the Patriots defense stood around most of the afternoon waiting for someone to make that sort of play. The Pats did get an interception on a tipped ball of their own (a nice play by cornerback Leigh Bodden to make the tip, and a good job by linebacker Tully Banta-Cain to bring in the ball), but those sorts of plays were the exception rather than the rule this season.
“Being around this team and knowing the type of players that we have — the spark that we have, all it took was one play. And we didn’t get it. We didn’t get it,” Wilfork said. “And that’s kind of hard, because normally we get that. But for some reason, we didn’t get it today, and we paid for it. We didn’t make the plays when we needed to make a play, and we paid for it.”
GIVING AN OPPOSING OFFENSE A SHORT FIELD IS A SURE RECIPE FOR DISASTER
As bad as the first quarter was for the Patriots, it wasn’t like Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco was lighting anybody up. He attempted four passes in the quarter, three of which were incomplete. The only one that found its mark was a 13-yard completion to Willis McGahee. (Remarkably, Flacco ended up just 4-for-10 for 34 yards and an interception — and still came away with a convincing win over Brady and the Patriots.)
The Ravens offense was able to put up 24 first-quarter points because it had a superior run game and a short field, thanks to three early New England turnovers. Setting aside Rice’s 83-yard gallop for the first score, Baltimore had scoring drives of 17, 25 and zero yards. (The Ravens also had scoring drives of 18 and 52 yards in the second half.)
For the day, Baltimore’s average starting field position was the 50-yard line — the Ravens averaged 5.7 plays and 32.5 yards on their six scoring drives. When you make it that easy for an offense, even the best defense in the world is going to struggle to win the game.
THE RAVENS WILL GIVE THE COLTS ALL THEY CAN ASK FOR
The Ravens present a lot of challenges for Indianapolis, who will host Baltimore in the divisional playoffs next Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium: They play a nasty, physical game and do a terrific job running the football. If they can stay away from bad penalties as they did on Sunday (after leading the regular-season in total penalty yardage, Baltimore took just three penalties for 15 yards against the Patriots), the Ravens have an excellent chance to win.
“We are on a great journey right now,” said Ray Lewis, who finished with a team-high 13 tackles. “We know what is going to be coming up next week playing in Indy. We know that [Peyton Manning] is probably the best quarterback in the last 10 to 20 years.”
“We’re looking forward to it,” said Baltimore coach John Harbaugh. “We can’t wait.”
THE PATRIOTS WILL LIKELY LOOK A LOT DIFFERENT NEXT SEASON
A handful of players have unresolved contract issues that have them in limbo: Neal, Faulk, left guard Logan Mankins, defensive lineman Jarvis Green, Bodden, Watson and kicker Stephen Gostkowski are among the unsigned past 2009.
“I’m not sure,” Neal said when asked whether or not he’ll retire. “I’m not sure how my body is going to feel. I’m not sure if I’ll keep playing, keep getting in these car accidents each week. I don’t know. We’ll have to find out — talk to the family, see what options are available.”
But the one contract situation that has hung over the team since the summer has been Wilfork. At his locker, wearing a vintage Bruins jersey (complete with “WILFORK” and No. 75 across the back), the Pro Bowler talked after Sunday’s game about his situation.
“My future, it’s not on me. So … I don’t know. Who knows? That’s a tough question,” he said. “I don’t know. I’m done. I’m done right now. We’ll approach it — we’ll take the proper steps to approach it. I’m pretty sure we’ll get through it, either one way or another. We’ll get through it. As of right now, my season is over [and] this team’s season is over.”
Even though he acknowledged he could imagine himself somewhere else, he was adamant that his feelings haven’t changed — he wants to remain in New England.
“Of course. I said that from Day 1,” he said. “If that wasn’t the case, I wouldn’t have been out here, playing for this team this year. I could have been easily sitting down and wanting my money and trying to prove a point, but that’s not me. I said I’m loyal to my word. I’m sticking by my word. I want to be a Patriot. But that’s not up to me.”
He said he would be upset if the team decided to franchise him.
“Of course I would. Yeah,” he said. “I want a long-term deal. That’s something that me and my wife, we want that. We are going to try and get it, a long-term deal done. And that’s first and foremost. We’ll hit that … who knows. I’ll talk to my agent. But we’ll see what’s going on in that area and go from there.”