BALTIMORE — So much for the new and improved Patriots. You know, the ones with an airtight defense and a newfound running game. Like the real NFL officials, that version of the Patriots never showed up Sunday night at M&T Bank Stadium.
Now, we have a version of the Patriots we haven’t seen in 10 years. The Patriots are now below .500 for the first time since starting the 2003 campaign with a loss in Buffalo. They are 1-2 for the first time since 2001. That is both a testament to the metronomic success of the Patriots’ organization and the fact that change is never easy and slow to come.
After an offseason of defensive augmentation and a ton of talk about being committed to running the ball through the first two games, the Patriots couldn’t do either in Baltimore when it counted. The result was a deflating 31-30 loss to the Ravens that saw the Patriots squander a lead of 13-0 and a 30-21 advantage late in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots lost those leads (and the game) because they couldn’t do the two things that have been prioritized — play defense and run the ball. It wasn’t because of the officials, who whistled the teams for 24 penalties for 218 yards, including a 27-yard pass interference call on Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty, who was in coverage on Jacoby Jones, with 52 seconds left.
That 162-yard rushing day against the Titans felt like it was during the days of Sam Cunningham, not three weeks ago. The Patriots ran the ball 34 times for 77 yards Sunday night, including six times for 3, yes, 3 yards in the fourth quarter.
You have to be able to run the ball to close out games. The Patriots couldn’t. The lack of confidence in the running game was obvious on New England’s final drive. On second and 9 from the Baltimore 44, the Patriots attempted to pass and Tom Brady was sacked for a 9-yard loss. Facing third and 16 from their own 49, the Patriots tried to pass again.
If you believe in your defense and your running game, you’re not throwing in those situations. This was far from the famed fourth-and-2 in Indianapolis, but it was clear Bill Belichick believed that offense was the only avenue to victory. It turned out he was right.
“You have to make plays, plain and simple,” said McCourty. “There were more plays, not just on the last drive, but all throughout the game that I can make and my team can make. It’s simple. I have to make more plays.”
The same can be said of a defense that got an extreme makeover in the offseason.
The Patriots came into Sunday night’s game second in the league in total defense (264.5 yards per game) and fourth in points allowed (16.5). You can throw those numbers in the circular file after the Patriots allowed the Ravens to rack up 503 yards of offense and allowed nine plays of more than 20 yards, including a 24-yarder to Jones on the final, fateful drive.
The single biggest unanswered questions about the Patriots after the two games was the secondary. It was answered last night. It’s still as unreliable as an MBTA commuter train on a frigid day.
The Patriots’ defense is improved, but we can hold off on comparisons to the Steel Curtain. The secondary is more like a red carpet, pointing the way to points.
Whether Joe Flacco is an elite quarterback or not is irrelevant. He was a quarterback who dissected the Patriots’ suspect secondary with such precision he could have been operating at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Flacco finished 28 of 39 for 382 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He was 12 of 15 for 161 yards and a score in the fourth quarter, what Magic Johnson used to call Winnin’ Time.
It was reminiscent of the efforts we’ve seen against the Patriots from Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.
“It was fantastic. It was elite. To me, Joe is a great quarterback,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh of Flacco. “This what we’ve been saying for five years.”
The running game also let the Patriots down. Stevan Ridley had 13 carries for 37 yards and Danny Woodhead had 15 carries for 34 yards.
A testy Belichick was asked about the offensive strategy after the game.
“What else would we do in that situation? Give them the ball back? When we’re on offense, we try to move the ball,” said Belichick. “What else would we do on offense? We sent the offense on the field to move the ball. At the end of the game, sometimes you don’t need points.
“You just try to move the ball and run out the clock. That’s what the offense is on the field for. What else would they do?’’
Offense was in abundance last night at M&T Bank Stadium — the teams combined for 899 yards of offense.
The Ravens’ defensive reputation is built more on their résumé than reality.
The Patriots didn’t have problems scoring on the Ravens and built a 30-21 fourth- quarter lead. Tom Brady was 21 of 48 for 335 yards and a touchdown.
It’s not time to push the panic button on the Patriots at 1-2, but it is time to acknowledge the success of the defense in the first two games had as much to do with the quality of quarterbacks they faced as it did with the quality of players they added, and that wanting to run the football consistently and being able to do it are two different things.
The Patriots are going to be there in the end, but the road has turned bumpier than we thought.
The Patriots were victimized by big plays against the Ravens — 10 plays went for more than 20 yards, including five in the fourth quarter.
Torrey Smith: 25-yard rec., TD
Jacoby Jones: 41-yard rec., Drive ended in TD
Dennis Pitta: 20-yard rec., TD
Smith: 32-yard rec., Drive ended in TD
Smith: 38-yard rec., Drive ended in punt
Anquan Boldin: 24-yard rec., Drive ended in turnover on downs
Jones: 21-yard rec., Drive ended in TD
Ray Rice: 27-yard rec., Drive ended in TD
Jones: 24-yard rec., Drive ended in GW FG
Jones 27-yard pass int., Drive ended in GW FGChristopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.