“It’s Baltimore, gentlemen. The Gods will not save you.” -- Police commissioner Ervin Burrell, “The Wire”
BALTIMORE -- It was a game the Patriots had in their back pocket.
Leading the Ravens by nine points midway through the fourth quarter, they had the ball and the momentum. To that point, New England had played good complementary football for much of the evening: Tom Brady had stayed away from turning the ball over, the defense had mostly risen to the challenge, and despite the fact that they were several questions about the officiating, the Patriots were able to stay mentally tough, rising above the problems and staying a step ahead of Baltimore.
Then, the roof caved in. The Ravens put together two fourth-quarter scoring drives, while the New England offense couldn’t move the ball. As good teams usually do, Baltimore took advantage, climbing back into the game. And when Ravens kicker Justin Tucker delivered a 27-yard field goal at the buzzer to sent M&T Bank Stadium into a frenzy, it gave Baltimore a 31-30 win over the Patriots (click here for the complete recap) and left the Patriots in stunned disbelief.
Remarkably, it’s the second straight loss for New England that came down to a last-second field goal -- last week against the Cardinals, Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a 42-yarder at the end of the game that proved to be the difference in the 20-18 loss.
“We just didn’t make enough plays in the game to top it off,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said. “We’ve got to finish and execute and play 60 minutes of football.”
In an ugly contest that might go down as the tipping point in the negotiating battle between the officials and the league, both sides were incredulous when it came to the replacement refs, who called 24 penalties in all -- 10 on New England and 14 on the Ravens. While the Ravens laughed about it in their locker room after the game -- “That was one of the best officiated games I’ve ever seen,” one Baltimore player joked -- the Patriots weren’t as happy.
“You saw the game,” seethed Patriots coach Bill Belichick, moments after he grabbed an official while running off the field to vent about the situation. “What did we have, 30 penalties called in that game?
“It’s our job just to go out there and control what we can control. That’s what we’re going to try and work on,” he added. “Go talk to the officials about the way they called the game, talk to the league about the way they called it. I don’t know. But we’ve just got to go out there and try to play it the best we can.”
And while the officials didn’t cost the Patriots the game, they certainly didn’t help matters. New England, one of the most disciplined teams in the league, was flagged 10 times for various infractions, including three times in the last 6:18 on defense that were absolutely deflating. And while some of the calls certainly were questionable, there was no doubt about the last one, a killer 27-yard pass interference flag on Devin McCourty that put the Ravens in position to kick the game-winner.
Ultimately, with the game on the line, the Patriots were not able to execute on either side of the ball, and it cost them dearly as they dropped to 1-2. Is it the end of the world? Not hardly. But when things like home-field advantage get tallied up at the end of the regular season, this will go down as one of those woulda, coulda, shoulda games that will cost them.
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday night in Baltimore.
WITHOUT AARON HERNANDEZ, THE PATRIOTS TURNED TO A VARIETY OF OPTIONS IN THE PASSING GAME
With Hernandez on the sidelines because of an ankle injury he suffered last week against the Cardinals, the Patriots were able to spread the ball around in the passing game, utilizing several different options with a great deal of success over the first three-plus quarters. The three pass-catchers who saw the most action on Sunday night were Wes Welker (eight catches on 10 targets for 142 yards), Brandon Lloyd (nine catches on 12 targets for 108 yards) and Julian Edelman (four catches on seven targets for 28 yards and a touchdown).
While Lloyd got much of his yardage at the expense of Baltimore cornerback Cary Williams, Welker made a number of big plays for the Patriots throughout, including a 59-yard reception on New England’s second drive of the game which set up the Patriots’ first score of the evening, a 37-yard field goal from Gostkowski.
“He made plenty of plays out there for us,” Brady said of Welker, who finished with a season-high in catches and yardage. “He’s a big part of our offense. It’s just a matter of continuing to find ways to get him the ball and to continue to spread it around to all the different guys -- a lot of guys contributed.”
Brady finished 28-for-41 for 335 yards with one touchdown. And while Welker and Lloyd had big nights throughout, Edelman was silent after the first half -- he injured his hand, and wasn’t heard from in the third or fourth quarter. Also chipping in was Deion Branch, who came away with two catches for 11 yards in his first game back on the roster. (He also drew a personal foul call when he got crunched by Baltimore’s Ed Reed on a ball that fell incomplete near the end of the third quarter.) And Kellen Winslow had one catch on two targets for 12 yards in his Patriots’ debut.
OVER THE LAST THREE GAMES, THE RUNNING GAME HAS GONE DOWNHILL
After rushing for 162 and 90 yards over their first two games -- and set to face a team in the Ravens that had struggled to defend the run over their first outings -- you would think that New England would be able to have an advantage on the ground against Baltimore. But the Patriots struggled to find any sort of consistency in the running game Sunday night, finishing with 34 carries and 77 yards, an anemic 2.3 yards per carry.
Lead back Stevan Ridley finished with 13 carries for 37 yards, while Danny Woodhead added 15 carries for 34 yards and a rushing touchdown. However, only one run went for more than 10 yards (Ridley snapped off a 14-yarder in the third quarter) and five of New England’s running plays ended up going for negative yards.
The running game had problems all night, but it really failed when it was trying to play four-minute offense in the fourth quarter, hoping to chew up some clock and keep the chains moving in hopes of putting more pressure on the Ravens. In the fourth quarter, the Patriots had -4 yards on the ground, with the longest run coming when Ridley went off left guard for a three-yard gain with just over two minutes left in regulation. The failure to play good situational football down the stretch was one of several reasons why New England lost.
“We had a chance to win it,” Brady said. “We just didn’t play well when we need to. Certainly, we’ve got to play our best when it means the most, and we need to start winning close games.”
THE OFFENSIVE LINE DESERVES CREDIT FOR KEEPING BRADY CLEAN
After taking more than their share of slings and arrows at the start of the season, the New England offensive line turned in an impressive outing Sunday night against the Ravens’ pass rush. The combination of left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Logan Mankins, center Ryan Wendell, right guard Dan Connolly and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer kept Brady mostly upright throughout the evening. (Mankins engaged in a lot of extracurricular activity, and was at the center of a lot of pushing and shoving after the whistle.)
Brady was sacked twice -- in an odd bit of symmetry, the sacks came on New England’s first and last drives of the evening -- and was hit six times, but he had more than enough time through the first three quarters to deliver the ball without an issue. The pocket was clean and there was a minimum of pressure off the edge. The Ravens were able to generate some heat late with some added blitz packages, but for the most part, the line held up well.
“With [Brady], you have to get pressure on that man’s face,” said Baltimore defensive back Bernard Pollard. “If you let him sit back there, he’ll eat you alive, and I think you guys saw that. Allowing him to sit back with guys running around him, that guy can thread the needle.”
THE RAVENS CAN LIMIT ROB GRONKOWSKI
Whether it was because of game planning -- the Patriots did utilize a three-wide receiver set for much of the night -- the work of the opposing defense or simply deciding to utilize him as an extra blocker, Rob Gronkowski went missing for large portions of the evening. He finished with two catches (on three targets) for 21 yards, and was a nonfactor in the passing game for much of the night.
“We just played football,” said Pollard when asked about slowing Gronkowski. “He’s a big target -- you can’t miss him out there. We just knew where he was at at all times. I think we did a really good job.”
It was the second-least productive game he’s had since the start of the 2011 season -- last year, the Raiders limited him to one catch for 15 yards, and he had two catches for 26 yards in the Super Bowl loss to the Giants. Through three games, Gronkowski has 14 catches for 156 yards and two touchdowns. Asked about his role against the Ravens, the big tight end -- who had 17 catches for 281 yards and five touchdowns through three games last season -- shrugged.
“It’s whatever the coaches have me do. Whatever they call, whatever play calls they have. I’ve got to perform better out there,” he said. “You just have to react to the defenses out there. In the end, they just made more plays than us. We have to finish off at the end of the game.”
THE PATRIOTS OFFENSE AGAIN FOUND SUCCESS IN THE NO-HUDDLE
As has been the case through the last year-plus, as well as their last four games against the Ravens, the Patriots leaned heavily on the no-huddle as an offensive weapon Sunday night. It provided the offense with a jumpstart, particularly on two first-quarter drives that ended with field goals and second-half drives that ended with a touchdown (in the third quarter) and a field goal (in the fourth quarter).
Ultimately New England, which was in the no-huddle an average of 28 percent in its previous four games with the Ravens, went no-huddle on 34 of their 77 snaps Sunday night against the Ravens, a rate of 44 percent. (They went no-huddle 12 plays in the first, five in the second, 14 in the third and three in the fourth.)
“I thought it put a lot of pressure on those guys,” Brady said of New England’s no-huddle offense Sunday night. “I don’t think they fooled us much with their different looks. They just played well when they needed to, especially in the red area.”
It’s worth mentioning that the Ravens, a team that had great success going uptempo through the first two games of their own (they had been in the no-huddle 22 percent through the first two games of the regular-season), used also used the no-huddle with great success Sunday night. The Ravens went no-huddle on 35 of their 65 plays from scrimmage on Sunday night, a rate of 54 percent.
DEVIN MCCOURTY WAS HAVING A NICE SEASON RIGHT UP UNTIL ABOUT 11 O’CLOCK SUNDAY NIGHT
The Patriots cornerback came into Sunday’s game on a bit of a roll after the first two contests of the season -- through two games, he allowed only four receptions and 53 yards on the 11 passes thrown his direction. He had started to flash more and more of the form that made him a Pro Bowler as a rookie, particularly last week against the Cardinals when he helped render Larry Fitzgerald a nonfactor.
But he hit a wall on Sunday night against the Ravens. While there were some stellar plays on his part -- he was tied for second on the team with seven tackles (six solo) and four passes defensed -- he also flat-out dropped two would-be interceptions that would have changed the tone of the game. He also whiffed badly on a tackle attempt of Baltimore tight end Dennis Pitta. (On the same play, Pitta hurdled Steve Gregory on the way to the end zone, a 20-yard touchdown reception that gave the Ravens a 14-13 lead near the end of the first half.)
The killer came with less than a minute to go. With the Ravens facing a 3rd and 9 at the New England 34-yard line, Flacco dropped back and lofted one down the Patriots’ sideline to Jacoby Jones. McCourty, who was in coverage with Jones, crashed into him, drawing the flag. After a kneeldown from Flacco and two timeouts, Tucker banged home the 27-yarder to end it.
“You have to make plays, plain and simple,” McCourty said after the game. “There were more plays, not just on the last drive, but all throughout the game that I can make and my team can make. And it’s simple -- I have to make those plays. ... I have to work at it. I have to get better because I was close on a lot of plays, and I just have to get it done.”
WHEN IT CAME TO THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE, THERE WAS AN UGLY SENSE OF DEJA VU
After last week’s narrow loss to the Cardinals, Patriots offensive lineman Logan Mankins stood at his locker and said that the offense was responsible for the defeat. On Sunday, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork flipped it around, saying the loss to the Ravens was the fault of the defense.
“We didn’t do what we needed to do to help our offense tonight, and it sucks, because coming into the game, we had a pretty good idea how we wanted to play it,” said Wilfork. “The first quarter showed, but it seems after that, we couldn’t get off the field. The offense played their tails off, and we just left them out to dry. And we can’t do that.”
Like McCourty, the New England defense did many good things through the first three-plus quarters: The Ravens ran one play in New England territory in the first quarter, and Baltimore went three-and-out on two of their first three drives. (The Ravens didn’t get their initial first down until the start of the second quarter.) The defensive highlight early came when Gregory stepped in front of a Flacco pass and took it back 36 yards to help set up the Patriots first touchdown of the night.
But down the stretch, the New England defense conjured memories of last season, when it struggled to get a stop with the game on the line. It lost sight of so many of the fundamentals that were evident over the first two games -- tackles, execution, shedding blocks, coverage. All of it.
"We have to find a way to play better," Gregory said. "They made plays, and we didn't. That's what it comes down to."
As a result, Joe Flacco was immense in victory, shaking off those early issues nicely and going 28-for-39 for 382 yards and three touchdowns. (It’s early, but I’m going to bet that the Patriots won’t face a quarterback with a better stat line all year long.) The Patriots’ pass rush didn’t get a single quarterback hit all night. And the Ravens had four scoring drives of at least eight plays and 503 total net yards, with running back Ray Rice accounting for 150 yards by himself (101 rushing, 49 receiving).
“We have to take it and move on,” Wilfork said. “We have to get better from this. We definitely have to get better. We will get better. It’s tough, because we though, coming in, we had a pretty good idea of how we wanted to play them. And it didn’t work out for us.”
STEPHEN GOSTKOWSKI BOUNCED BACK NICELY
The Patriots kicker managed to shake off the memory of last week’s miss against the Cardinals and made field goals from 37, 49 and 20 yards, to go along with three successful extra-point attempts. He also put five of his seven kickoffs into the end zone, with three going for touchbacks. Punter Zoltan Mesko had a good night, averaging 43 yards on his four punts, but he botched his last one, sending it only 30 yards and allowing the Ravens to take over on their own 21-yard line with just under two minutes remaining.
BERNARD POLLARD BELIEVES HE’LL SEE THE PATRIOTS AGAIN
Despite the hysteria of the evening -- and the fact that the Patriots are 1-2 -- Ravens defensive back Bernard Pollard says he anticipates crossing paths with New England again this season. That means another playoff rematch between the Patriots and Baltimore could be in the cards.
“We know we’re probably going to see them down the road,” said Pollard after the game. “That’s just football. That’s big-time football. The Patriots are a really good team -- we’re very similar.
“[But] however we can get the win, we got it,” he said. “Everything is not going to be pretty. I think for us we’re just excited because it’s a hard-fought game. Games like this, we know will go to the end. We played good. It wasn’t anything pretty. We messed some things up. This game, you’re not going to be perfect, but we’re feeling good right now.”
Pollard, who gained a measure of infamy in New England after he delivered a hit that resulted in a season-ending injury to Brady in 2008 and a tackle on Rob Gronkowski in last year’s AFC title game that left the tight end hobbled for the Super Bowl, said one of the reasons they played well down the stretch was because they got back to basics.
“We just went out there and played,” he said of Baltimore’s defensive effort that left the Patriots scoreless over the final 14 minutes. “We weren’t worried about how many points we were down. When we were down, we just went out and played. I think for us, we played the Ravens way toward the end of the game.”