The biggest question left from the Patriots’ AFC Championship game victory over the Ravens has to do with the play of Tom Brady.
He was 22 of 36 for 239 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. Brady’s passer rating - whatever that means - was an anemic 57.5.
Brady wasn’t happy with his performance. Of course, he would still find fault if he played terrific.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had the same attempts and completions, but 306 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception for a rating of 95.4.
Flacco outplayed Brady? Perhaps, but they were certainly not going against the same defenses. We know this.
According to FootballOutsiders.com’s computations, the Ravens had the best pass defense in the league, and the Patriots were 28th.
So how did Brady really play?
While he wasn’t perfect, he played well. Certainly well enough to win the game.
What critics seem to disregard is that playoff football is completely different than the regular season.
You need to forget about what happened in the regular season and against overmatched postseason foes such as the Broncos. There are no Eagles, Redskins, or Colts left in the final four of the NFL playoffs.
Any talk about the Patriots being unstoppable, about how teams can’t match up with their twin-tight-end personnel, is just false once you get deep in the playoffs.
What you saw on Sunday was playoff football. Fantasy points don’t count. Winning does.
And Brady easily had a winning performance against a tough Ravens defense.
Brady was efficient, he made smart decisions for the most part, he adjusted plays well and put the ball - even on his two interceptions - where either his teammate was going to catch it or the defender was going to make an outstanding play.
He averaged 6.64 yards per attempt - the stat that usually is the truest indicator of how well a quarterback plays (or how poorly a defense does). In the regular season, that would have been Brady’s third-lowest YPA, behind the loss to the Steelers (5.54) and the late-season win over the Dolphins (6.61). Brady’s YPA for the season was 8.60.
The fact is, Brady has now played in 21 playoff games. His average YPA in those games is 6.81. In the Patriots’ 16 victories, it’s 6.94. In the five losses, it’s 6.43.
The difference is negligible. What you saw on Sunday is how playoff football is played, especially against the type of scheme that always has given Brady and the Patriots trouble.
It’s not flashy like the regular season. Don’t be fooled by what we witnessed against the Broncos.
The playoffs are a grind.
And Brady and his teammates ground it out for a victory.
And they’re going to have to do it again in the Super Bowl against the Giants.
If you’re expecting fireworks, you’ll be disappointed.
Here are the positional ratings against the Ravens:
Quarterback Rating: 3 out of 5
The Patriots came out with a game plan to throw quick and to target standout cornerback Lardarius Webb early, perhaps to shake his confidence. Brady released 59 percent of his 39 dropbacks (including penalties) in under 2.4 seconds. That’s almost unsackable. Three of Brady’s poorest decisions came when he appeared to target Webb. The interception that was called back because Webb held Wes Welker was actually supposed to be a tight end screen to the other side to Rob Gronkowski with Aaron Hernandez blocking. On Brady’s first interception, throwing to Julian Edelman, Webb made a tremendous leaping play. Not sure why Brady wanted to go there outside of wanting to test Webb. He could have gone to Deion Branch running a hitch, or Hernandez on the other side running an out. The natural route for Edelman, who ran straight up the field, would be for a smash concept - Branch’s hitch outside and Edelman breaking to the corner from the slot - but because of Webb’s hand checking, Edelman couldn’t get there. Brady forced it again to Welker against Webb with 12:11 left in the second quarter when he had a better option to the other side of the field with Hernandez. Two plays earlier, when Brady just missed Hernandez in the seam, he should have been better. The big missed throw to an open Gronkowski, perhaps for a touchdown, is a play Brady usually makes, but it was a tough one. Brady turned away on a play-fake, had to spin, and when he threw, Terrell Suggs had beaten Matt Light and hurried Brady. On the interception in the fourth quarter following Brandon Spikes’s interception, it was obviously a called deep shot. Brady didn’t have to take it - and probably wouldn’t have had Ed Reed been the deep safety - but against Bernard Pollard, rookie Jimmy Smith, and the struggling Cary Williams, Brady thought it was worth a shot. Pollard just made an extraordinary play. It was a poor throw, not a poor decision. On the final third down of the game for the Patriots - third and 4 with two minutes remaining - when a first down would have ended the game, Ed Reed just made an Ed Reed play. However, Brady missed a chance at a huge play, perhaps a touchdown, when Welker beat Webb off the ball down the left sideline and put his hand up. There was no safety over the top.
Running backs Rating: 4 out of 5
There were no issues with ball security from this group, and pass protection was flawless. The Patriots used their wham concept more than in previous games. Usually it’s Gronkowski coming back across the middle to take out an unsuspecting and unblocked defensive lineman. Against the Ravens, the Patriots used their guards 11 times to pull - eight by left guard Logan Mankins - including the exquisitely executed 7-yard touchdown run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The big third-and-2 run with 9:47 left in the third quarter at the Baltimore 6 was just a bad play. If the Patriots had to do it all over it again, they might have called time out or Brady would have killed the play. The Ravens had the box stacked with eight players. Gronkowski didn’t get a good seal on linebacker Jarret Johnson, Welker hesitated making his block on Reed - who really blew up the play - and Green-Ellis wasn’t left with much. Want to look at a typically subtle but effective Green-Ellis run? On the first play of the fourth quarter, both Light and Dan Connolly lost their blocks, but Green-Ellis still fought for 3 yards.
Receivers Rating: 4.5 out of 5
The only negative was the one run stuff allowed each by Welker, Gronkowski, and Hernandez. Welker, however, was put in the impossible position of trying to block Johnson straight up on Hernandez’s no-gain run with 10:36 left in the third quarter. Other than that, the play was superb once again, with zero drops. The Ravens did what good and capable teams do - mix and vary their coverages on all the receivers. Brady never knows what he’s going to get after the snap because the pre-snap look is almost always different. The Ravens did a great job of sticking with it even against the no-huddle, which has become a major component of the offense, not just a change of pace. The Ravens also chipped Gronkowski coming off the line on almost every play. The 23-yard pass on which Gronkowski was injured was one of the few times the Ravens didn’t jam. They paid the price. Terrific diving catch by Edelman to convert the Patriots’ first third down of the game. Edelman (27 snaps on offense) and Branch laid terrific blocks on Hernandez’s 9-yard run early in the fourth quarter. Edelman’s was more impressive because he took out Suggs.
Offensive line Rating: 4 out of 5
It wasn’t a perfect performance, but considering the opponent and stakes, it was close. For the game, the Patriots allowed 10 quarterback pressures: one sack (Nate Solder caught reaching vs. Paul Kruger), six hurries, and three knockdowns. That’s about the seasonal average, and double the five pressures by the inept Broncos. Amazingly, the Ravens rushed three players as many times as they blitzed: eight (20.5 percent of dropbacks). The Ravens never came with a heavy blitz of six rushers or more. They obviously wanted to concentrate on mixing coverages. The other part of the offensive game plan was to shut down Haloti Ngata and not to run at Suggs (did it once and he tossed Gronkowski and took down Hernandez for no gain). Ngata played only 58 of 70 snaps compared with Vince Wilfork’s 67, and held his own in the run game, but was limited to three impact plays: a tipped pass, half knockdown, and a stuffed run. The Patriots doubled Ngata on 16 of 29 pass plays, and four of 17 against the run. Brian Waters and Connolly took turns stoning Ngata one-on-one. Great job by Connolly handling Ngata on third and 10 with 3:08 left in the first half. That’s exactly the type of play on which Ngata victimized Dan Koppen (two sacks allowed) last year. Suggs was doubled or chipped only five times in 33 snaps. Light allowed just one hurry in 18 one-on-one opportunities.
Defensive line Rating: 5 out of 5
For the second week in a row, a flawless performance from the three down linemen. Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love (2.5 hurries, half knockdown) led the way. Brandon Deaderick (two run stuffs, two plus run tackles) owned left guard Ben Grubbs in the early going. Gerard Warren (half stuff, plus run tackle) was strong in his snaps, and even Ron Brace penetrated against the run when given an opportunity.
Linebackers Rating: 4.5 out of 5
This group was able to bring pressure despite blitzing just 20 percent of the time. Rob Ninkovich (half sack, 1.5 hurries, two half knockdowns) corners extremely well rushing to the passer. Mark Anderson had two containment problems but otherwise was stellar (half sack, two hurries, three half knockdowns). Spikes (four plus run tackles) was too eager on one gap but that was it. He and Jerod Mayo (two knockdowns, pass defense, two plus run tackles) were terrific. Great play by Spikes to trip up Ricky Williams after 9 yards with 10:53 left in the fourth quarter. There was room for a lot more. Spikes’s standout interception ended the drive when he played the curl underneath Ed Dickson.
Secondary Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Sterling Moore’s pass breakup on third down against Dennis Pitta was a better individual play than his pass breakup against Lee Evans on second down - call it the immaculate deflection or whatever, the ball came out - but overall this group had issues. On Torrey Smith’s 42-yard catch, Moore, playing safety, bit on the play-action. Huge tackle by Kyle Arrington on the much larger Anquan Boldin on third down, 1 yard short of the marker, early in the second quarter. The Patriots dodged a huge bullet when Patrick Chung was beaten deep by Smith but a combined knockdown from Anderson and Love made the throw erratic. On Smith’s 29-yard touchdown, the Patriots were in a rare Cover 0 all-out blitz, and the defenders have to make the tackle if the ball gets away. Moore did not. Edelman playing 27 snaps both ways must be noted.
Special teams Rating: 3 out of 5
Obviously, Danny Woodhead’s fumble was huge but he was bailed out when the defense held the Ravens to just a field goal. Great tackle by Sergio Brown on the final punt return of the game. Made the Ravens drive that much farther. Lousaka Polite made a terrific block on Woodhead’s 41-yard return. Stephen Gostkowski outkicked Billy Cundiff on kickoffs, which was a surprise.
PLAY OF THE GAME
Situation: With the score tied at 3 with 10:40 left in the second quarter, the Patriots had ﬁrst and goal at the Ravens’ 7-yard line.
What happened: Quarterback Tom Brady (12) sent receiver Wes Welker (83) in motion, and the lack of movement from the Ravens indicated they were in a zone defense. Brady made an adjustment at the line. Perhaps he ﬂipped the play — from running left to right — or just audibled from a pass to run when he saw the Ravens had only two true down linemen with Haloti Ngata (92) and Terrence Cody (62). Baltimore had four linebackers, two safeties, and three cornerbacks. With left guard Logan Mankins (70) pulling on the trap play, the Patriots had the Ravens outmanned to the strong side (with the tight end) since they essentially had ﬁve players to that side.
If the Patriots executed, a Raven was going to have to make an extraordinary play to stop them. Brian Waters (54) and Dan Connolly (63) each blocked down. Rookie Nate Solder (77) and tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) had to seal Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis (52) and Ngata, respectively, for the play to work. They did. Mankins picked off linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (59), running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (42) read the block of Mankins perfectly and went inside, and Welker took out safety Bernard Pollard (31) to create a lane rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith (22) and safety Ed Reed (20) could not ﬁll. GreenEllis’s touchdown was the Patriots’ only one in the ﬁrst three quarters.
ON HIS GAME
Vince Wilfork, defensive tackle
The ﬁnest performance of his standout career with 1 1/2 sacks, 4 hurries, 2 1/2 run stuffs, and another standout run tackle. He owned the Ravens’ line playing end on early downs and kicking inside to rush the passer.
OFF HIS GAME
Danny Woodhead, kick returner
If the defense doesn’t hold the Ravens to a ﬁeld goal, Woodhead may have been wearing the goat horns and not Billy Cundiff.