FOXBOROUGH — Ray Lewis’s ride will continue, while the Patriots’ season ended Sunday night when the Baltimore Ravens won the AFC Championship game, 28-13, at Gillette Stadium.
The Ravens avenged a loss to the Patriots in the AFC title game last season.
Lewis, the 17-year veteran linebacker, announced in December his career would end when the Ravens’ season did. After a wild-card win against the Colts, a two-overtime thriller in Denver, and now the upset of New England, Lewis and Baltimore are headed to the Super Bowl.
He and the Ravens made no secret of the fact they wanted to play the Patriots again, that they wanted to return to Foxborough and change their fortunes.
It was the first time the Patriots lost a conference championship game at home, the first time they watched an opponent celebrate a trip to the Super Bowl on their home field.
There was little noise in the Patriots’ locker room after the loss that wasn’t coming from the assembled media. Players dressed quietly, shaking hands or hugging on their way out the door. They have to be at Gillette Stadium Monday for exit physicals and to clean out their lockers, but everyone knows the team that played Sunday night won’t be the team that assembles in July when training camp starts again.
“It always comes to a screeching halt. That’s just the way it is,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “Only two teams advance and those two teams deserve it. We’ve lost before. It takes a while to get over.”
“It’s the worst feeling,” defensive back Devin McCourty said. “You get this far, you don’t see your season coming to an end; you can’t prepare for this.”
As much as this Ravens playoff run has seemingly become all about Lewis, the win solidified Joe Flacco as a top quarterback in the NFL – Sunday was his 12th postseason game, 10 of which have come on the road. This was the second straight year he got his team to the AFC title game, and in his fifth season he has led the Ravens to the final game of the season.
Flacco was 21 of 36 for 240 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions — he has yet to throw an interception in these playoffs.
“I think he played phenomenal,” Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes said. “He played poised and led his team. My hat goes off to them.”
The Patriots were seemingly fielding their most complete team in a few years, with the usual strong offense and retooled defense that got better as the season went on, but each unit played uncharacteristically poorly Sunday.
For Brady and the offense, the problem was not taking advantage of good field position, and curious clock management at the end of the second quarter.
On the defensive side, there were scoring drives allowed of 90 and 87 yards, the second of which, in the third quarter, put the Ravens up for good. The Patriots also had to play three-plus quarters without top cornerback Aqib Talib, who injured his leg breaking up a third-down pass and was unable to return.
Other members of the secondary said Talib’s injury meant others had to step up and play, but with Talib, the Patriots were able to put players in their best positions. Without him, Kyle Arrington had to move outside from his now-customary slot spot, and Marquice Cole was at the star position in Arrington’s place.
Not the ideal alignment for the Patriots.
When New England has lost playoff games in recent years, it has been because the high-flying offense was effectively grounded: the 14 and 17 points scored in both Super Bowls against the Giants, the 14 points in their loss to Baltimore in the 2009 season.
But it has been years since the Patriots have been held to fewer than two touchdowns in any game — the last time in Week 2 of the 2009 season, a 16-9 loss at the Jets. Since then, the Patriots had been shut out in the second half of a game only twice, prior to Sunday.
“I don’t know,” Patriots receiver Wes Welker said when asked what Baltimore did differently in the second half. “I’d have to go back and look at the film. We just didn’t execute the way we needed to and it showed.”
For as many times as he has come through for the Patriots, Welker had another key drop, on the first possession of the third quarter.
Facing third and 8, Brady hit Welker near the left sideline, but the ball went through his hands. Though they were on the Baltimore 34, the Patriots opted to punt rather than try a 52-yard field goal into the open end of the stadium, which was also into the wind.
The Ravens drove 87 yards on 10 plays when they got the ball, taking the lead for the first time, 14-13.
“They came kind of up-tempo a little bit with different personnel, and we struggled with it,” defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said of the Ravens’ second-half adjustments. “It wasn’t anything we didn’t know they were going to do. We had opportunities. I think we played pretty well at times, but when we needed them we just didn’t make enough plays.”
New England had a third-down conversion on its next possession wiped away by a Nate Solder holding call and could not convert on third and 12.
“We got behind in the second half and became one-dimensional,” Brady said, referring to his 30 pass attempts against just eight rushes in the third and fourth quarters. “We just couldn’t string enough good plays together to get the ball in the end zone.”
New England was just 1 for 4 in the red zone — a stark change for a team that got TDs on 49 of 70 red-zone trips during the regular season.
The missed opportunities on offense, and the defense was unable to make a key stop in the second half. None of it was how New England expected things to go.
“I’m at a loss for words, I didn’t expect this,” Spikes said. “It’s tough. It will be tough to get over this. A couple of plays. We have to make plays.”
“I had all my plans to go to the Super Bowl,” Solder said. “I don’t even know what I’m going to do now.”