FOXBOROUGH - Disaster always had stayed foreign to these Patriots, some evil force that only other teams needed to worry about. They might not win. They never would collapse and embarrass themselves. They never would let five minutes unravel their entire season.
And then yesterday came, and the Baltimore Ravens swaggered into Gillette Stadium, and disaster struck. The Patriots allowed a touchdown on the first snap. Their crowd booed them. Tom Brady crumbled. In their first playoff game of the new decade, the Patriots may have lost the final bit of the dynastic mystique they created in the last one.
The Ravens ended the Patriots’ season with a 33-14 victory that will not be remembered for the final margin, but for the stunned silence at Gillette by the end of the first quarter. The Ravens outscored the Patriots, 24-0, in the opening period, overwhelming them with brute force on offense and defense. The final three quarters were little more than calisthenics.
“We didn’t come to play, point blank,” defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. “We never had a chance from the first play to the last play. We didn’t even play like it was a playoff game. More like a preseason game. We got beat up today. For them to come in here and do what they did, they could basically have been playing out there with a JV football team and they probably would have given a better effort than we did.”
The mauling Ravens defense made Brady its primary target, stripping him once and intercepting three of his passes. In his return to the postseason after spending 2008 sidelined by a knee injury, Brady lost in Foxborough for the first time since Nov. 12, 2006, and lost in the playoffs at home for the first time in nine games.
The Patriots had not lost at home in the playoffs since Dec. 31, 1978, and you also would need to scour the history books to find such a thorough defeat. The Ravens held the Patriots to 196 yards while Ray Rice ran for 159 himself. Baltimore needed quarterback Joe Flacco to produce only 34 yards passing to score 33 points.
The effort underscored a trying campaign for the Patriots, who won the AFC East but endured more turmoil than in any recent season. They fought injuries, uncommon insubordination in the locker room, and won only one true road game.
“It’s not like we were 2-14,” Brady said. “We’re not at that stage. There’s things that show up over the course of the year that we didn’t do very well. A lot of things that are why we’ve been successful - mental toughness, and leadership, discipline, and commitment. All those things we displayed at times, and we didn’t display at other times.”
Their play yesterday ensured they immediately could begin fixing the problems for next season. The question all week was how the Patriots would play without Wes Welker. The Ravens, not long after Welker used crutches to walk out for the coin toss, announced that New England’s problems ran much deeper than that.
On the first snap of the game, Flacco handed off to dynamite-legged Rice. He squirmed behind right guard Marshal Yanda, who collapsed linebacker Gary Guyton into a pile of bodies. Rice darted into the secondary, cut to the left, and saw only green turf ahead. He outran safety Brandon Meriweather to the pylon and then flexed his right biceps.
Things could not get worse for the Patriots, and then they did. On their third offensive play, Terrell Suggs wheeled around left tackle Matt Light and swatted at Brady’s hand as he cocked to throw. The ball popped loose, and Suggs fell on it at the Patriots’ 16. The crowd turned silent.
The Ravens ran the ball five times, Le’Ron McClain plunging through a gaping hole from the 1 to finish off the drive. Four minutes and 31 seconds into the game, the Patriots trailed, 14-0.
“We were flat,” running back Kevin Faulk said.
Things could not get worse for the Patriots, and then they did. Both teams went three-and-out, and the Patriots took over at their 14. Three plays into their possession, Brady scrambled to his right and fired a pass in the general direction of Sam Aiken. The only player close to the ball was Ravens safety Chris Carr, who caught it.
The Ravens needed five plays before the ball was back at the 1-yard line. This time, Rice plowed in over left guard Ben Grubbs. The Ravens had taken a 21-0 lead.
“You can’t explain it,” linebacker Tully Banta-Cain said. “Everything that could have went wrong for us and went right for them happened.”
Things could not get worse for the Patriots, and then they did. On the second play of their ensuing drive, Brady threw a fade pattern to Aiken, one of the receivers charged with replacing the invaluable Welker. Aiken tipped the ball, and Ed Reed, the safety Bill Belichick regards as the NFL’s best, snared it. After a nifty lateral by Reed, the Ravens had the ball at the 9.
Billy Cundiff added a field goal to make the count an amazing 24-0. New England had allowed 24 points in a quarter, more than any Patriots team ever had in the postseason.
“You definitely don’t imagine that,” linebacker Adalius Thomas said.
The Patriots recaptured a sliver of hope at the beginning of the second quarter. The Ravens forced a punt, and Chris Hanson skied a kick down the right sideline. Tom Zbikowski, looking to block, let the ball bounce off his back. It rolled away, and special teams ace Kyle Arrington corralled it on the sideline. Replays seemed to show that Arrington never controlled the ball before falling out of bounds. But Ravens coach John Harbaugh did not challenge the play, and the Patriots maintained possession at the Baltimore 16.
On third and goal from the 6, Brady scrambled, pursued again by a ferocious rush. Running to his right, Brady zipped a pass to Julian Edelman in the end zone. Edelman caught it, leaped, and emphatically spiked the ball. Welker gave owner Robert Kraft a high-five in the owner’s box.
The temporary momentum could not overcome the hideous facts. At halftime, the Patriots had 61 total net yards. So did Faulk.
The Patriots injected more life into their season in third quarter, when Brady hit Edelman on a 1-yard touchdown pass, this time to the left. By reputation, the Patriots could not be counted out. At the end of the third quarter, Jets safety Kerry Rhodes tweeted that “New England is gonna make it tight.”
Reputations don’t score points or tackle running backs. The Ravens pounded home another touchdown early in the fourth quarter. The Patriots ran no-huddle offense to the other end of the field. (Randy Moss, walking back to the line, had to be urged by a teammate to hurry up.) But Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal, and the crowd’s exodus commenced.
“I’m disappointed the way we finished the season,” coach Bill Belichick said. “There really isn’t too much to say. They did everything better than we did.”
On the game’s second-to-last play, Brady scrambled away from a rusher and threw the ball away so he wouldn’t have to take another hit. It would be the last pass he would throw this season. Brady stared off, into the offseason and a future when nothing is certain anymore for his team.
“It was a different team this year,” Brady said. “It was a different team.”