FOXBOROUGH — There is the din of victory and the funereal silence of defeat. Winning is full of sound and fury. Losing is full of fury, but no sound but sorrowful silence.
It was fitting then that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady strode to the podium dressed in the universal color of grieving after another season quietly faded to black without a fourth Lombardi Trophy. The Patriots’ season had just been buried by the Baltimore Ravens, 28-13, in the AFC Championship game Sunday night at Gillette Stadium, another Lombardi opportunity lost for Brady, another piece of his legacy chipped like a piece of fine china.
“You have the opportunity to win the game. We came up short,” said Brady. “There is frustration in that we wish we could have done better. But they’re not going to give it to you. We didn’t earn it. They earned it.”
The end came in a game in which Brady and the Patriots’ high-powered offense were as quiet as the Patriots’ locker room postgame, not registering a peep — or a point — in the second half. They were shut down and shut out by Right Reverend Ray Lewis and the boastful Baltimore Ravens.
The look of disbelief on Brady’s face after Ravens defensive lineman Pernell McPhee deflected his pass and it nestled into the arms of Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe at the Baltimore 16 with 6:49 to go said more than any words he could offer.
The NFL might be a quarterback league, but the lesson the Patriots keep getting taught over and over is that to put a ring on it you need more than just a franchise signal-caller. So, the pact the Patriots had made from their first game of the season was to be a more balanced offense.
“The toughness of your team is built around running the ball and stopping the run,” said Brady after the season-opening win in Tennessee on Sept. 9 in which the Patriots ran for 162 yards on 35 carries. “The critical games and the critical situations — that’s the foundation of your team. That’s what you’re built on and that’s what you’ve got to be able to do. You’ve got to run it when they know you’re going to run it.”
The Patriots’ foundation cracked when it mattered most. They abandoned balance and put the weight of their season on Brady’s shoulder, and like in 2010 against the New York Jets and last year in Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants it was too much for one man to bear.
The Patriots threw the ball 54 times against the Ravens and ran it just 28. Some of that was a factor of getting behind, 21-13, on the first play of the fourth quarter, a Joe Flacco-to-Anquan Boldin touchdown pass.
But New England ran the ball seven times in the second half and threw it 30. In the third quarter, which started with the Patriots leading, 13-7, it was eight passes and two runs. New England ended up with 28 rushes for 108 yards.
It was Brady or bust, and the Patriots’ offense went bust with Brady going 29 of 54 for 320 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
The lesson for the Patriots is that physicality and not finesse football wins out this time of year. The sixth 300-yard passing game of Brady’s postseason career was empty calories.
The passive passing tone was set on the Patriots’ first drive.
On third and 2 from their 42, Brady was in the shotgun. He threw an incompletion to Wes Welker. On another third and 2 from the Ravens’ 45 late in the first quarter, Brady was in the shotgun and threw an incompletion to Brandon Lloyd.
In the third quarter, right after Baltimore took the lead (14-13) on a Flacco touchdown pass, the Patriots had third and 2 at their 33. They passed out of the shotgun for 4 yards to Danny Woodhead, but a holding call on Nate Solder negated the first down.
There will be a rush to put this latest failure at the feet of Brady, and he didn’t play his best game.
There was a mind-boggling sequence at the end of the first half in which the Patriots had first and goal at the Baltimore 10 with 26 seconds and one timeout remaining and were only able to run one play — an ill-advised Brady scramble for 3 yards — before settling for a 25-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski.
It was the type of clock management we associate with clueless clubs such as the San Diego Chargers, and not the teacher’s pet Patriots.
“Tom actually called timeout at the same time I did, so we just didn’t have it,” said coach Bill Belichick.
That was as close as the Patriots would get to the Ravens end zone for the rest of the game.
They turned it over three times in the fourth quarter, two of them Brady interceptions.
“Multiple looks, multiple pressures, multiple coverages,” said former Patriots safety James Ihedigbo, explaining how his new team flummoxed his old one. “He’s a phenomenal quarterback. You have to give him different looks every time. I think there was a stretch where we probably called somewhere around eight different plays, eight different pressures, eight different plays, coverages in one drive. So you have to continue to switch it up on the guy because he’s so smart.”
So much credence is put on wins and losses for quarterbacks. But is there anyone out there who thinks Flacco, the NFL’s Eeyore, is a more capable QB than Brady?
Blame Brady if you want. But the difference between the days when the Patriots won Super Bowls isn’t Brady, it’s the team around him.
Until the Patriots rectify that, each season is going to end in silence instead of celebration.