FOXBOROUGH — It was going to be tough enough beating the Ravens in the AFC Championship game. But two early injuries to the Patriots’ defense made the challenge that much greater.
Defensive tackle Kyle Love left the game in the first quarter with a knee injury, and did not return. Not long after, cornerback Aqib Talib left with a right thigh injury, and also did not return. Talib came back to the sideline, helmet off, trying to see if he was healthy enough to play. Not long after, he was seen sitting down, heavy coat draped over his uniform. His night was over.
Talib’s acquisition Nov. 1 coincided with the Patriots starting to play better defensively, especially in the secondary. His absence in Sunday’s 28-13 AFC Championship game loss was definitely felt.
“It always affects you when a starter goes out, you practice something all week with guys in there, but that’s football,” said safety Devin McCourty. “We were ready to make adjustments, we made the adjustments once ‘Qib went down, and it just came down to executing.”
With a lingering injury to defensive end Chandler Jones, who left the divisional round playoff opener with an ankle and played sparingly against the Ravens, it left the Patriots thin up front. Justin Francis, an undrafted rookie, got the start in Jones’s place at defensive end — the first of his career — and Brandon Deaderick took over for Love inside.
Talib’s injury was even more damaging, considering the Ravens’ big-play receivers. Kyle Arrington came in for Talib and spent the bulk of the game covering Baltimore deep threat Torrey Smith.
“We had to make some adjustments,” coach Bill Belichick said. “When Kyle went out and when Talib went out, we had to make some adjustments. But that’s the National Football League.”
Arrington played well in Talib’s place; Smith was limited to four catches for 69 yards.
Patrick Chung left the game briefly in the first half with an injury, but he returned not long after. Rob Ninkovich went out late in the fourth quarter, and was also able to come back.
Ridley run down
Running back Stevan Ridley had a game-high 70 yards on 18 carries, but lost a fourth-quarter fumble when Bernard Pollard crashed into his helmet, which jarred the ball loose and appeared to knock Ridley out cold. The play came with the Patriots trailing, 21-13, and more than 12 minutes left. The ball was recovered by Baltimore defensive end Arthur Jones — Chandler’s brother — and the Ravens took advantage of the short field, punching it in for another touchdown that extended their lead to 28-13.
Since the play resulted in a change of possession, it was reviewed by referee Bill Leavy, who was asked after the game by a pool reporter what he saw under the hood.
“What I saw was the receiver was going to the ground, had both legs off the ground, no body part was on the ground,” Leavy said. “The ball hit his knee and dislodged from his hand before the rest of his body hit the ground, therefore it was a fumble and we confirmed it.”
Ridley left the game with a head injury and did not return.
It seemed there was some clock mismanagement for the Patriots at the end of the first half. There were 34 seconds on the clock when Tom Brady found Aaron Hernandez for a 17-yard reception on third down, giving New England first-and-goal from the 10.
But Hernandez didn’t go out of bounds, forcing the Patriots to call a timeout with 26 seconds to go. Brady scrambled for 3 yards on first down, but with the clock running, New England waited too long to call another timeout.
The clock ran down to four seconds and there was no choice but to go for the field goal and get the almost-assured points given the distance of the kick.
The Patriots went into the locker room up, 13-7, though it could have been 17-7.
“We had one timeout left so we were trying to save that for the field goal,” Brady explained. “I would have loved to get the touchdown there, but we settled for the field goal to go up whatever it was, 13-7 at the half. We felt pretty good about where we were at halftime, but we just didn’t come out in the second half and execute very well.”
Belichick also did not seem bothered postgame about a likely missed opportunity.
“No, not really,” he said when asked if the Patriots thought about calling a timeout immediately after Brady’s scramble. “I thought we could get up there [to the line of scrimmage] or we wanted to try to get up there and clock it and have time to run a play and have the timeout to kick the field goal.
“I guess if we had known that it would take as long as it did to get the ball finally clocked, but then we didn’t get a great look on the play.”
They had it covered
One of the focus points for the Patriots all week was improving their effort on kickoff coverage, after the Texans’ Danieal Manning averaged 54 yards on four returns in the playoff opener, including a 94-yarder to begin the game.
Jacoby Jones, Baltimore’s primary return man, averaged 30.7 yards per kickoff return in the regular season, and brought two back for touchdowns.
The Patriots completely neutralized Jones, who averaged just 10.7 yards on his three returns. Jones had a 9-yard return after the Patriots took a 3-0 lead; coupled with an illegal block on the Ravens, they began the drive at their 10-yard-line. His only other return in the first half, following a Wes Welker touchdown also went for 9 yards.
The inability of Jones to get going — or the ability of the Patriots to slow him down — had a lot to do with the field-position battle in the first half. The Ravens had five possessions, and started drives inside their 15-yard-line every time: 13, 10, 8, 10, 14. The Patriots had it six times in the first half, starting at their 20, 21, 33, 47, 21, and Baltimore’s 43.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, they only kicked off once in the second half — to start the third quarter — because they never scored. Jones returned the second-half kickoff 14 yards.
Fells gets the call
Marcus Forston was promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man roster on Saturday, and with the Patriots not missing anybody from Friday’s practice and all five players on the injury report listed as probable, chances were good the rookie defensive lineman would be a healthy scratch.
He was, with the Patriots dressing tight end Daniel Fells, who had been inactive last week. Not a surprise, considering the season-ending injury last week to Rob Gronkowski. The team’s other six inactives were identical from last week: defensive end Jake Bequette, defensive backs Malcolm Williams and Derrick Martin, offensive linemen Nick McDonald and Markus Zusevics, and receiver Kamar Aiken.
With Gronkowski out, the Patriots would be forced to alter their offensive starting lineup, and had Michael Hoomanawanui in there to begin the game at tight end, in addition to regular starter Hernandez. Ridley got the start at tailback. He was inactive for last season’s AFC Championship game against the Ravens — he had fumbled the previous two games, losing one. He also didn’t get the start against the Texans in the divisional-round game a week ago, with Danny Woodhead getting the call. Woodhead was injured on the first play against Houston, though, and Ridley, the Patriots’ leading rusher this season, carried 15 times for 82 yards . . . Brandon Lloyd had one of his best games of the season in the regular-season meeting against the Ravens, catching nine balls for 108 yards. It was a matchup the Patriots obviously liked, because Brady threw Lloyd’s way eight times in the first half, and 14 for the game. He caught seven passes for 70 yards . . . Brady set a record in defeat, becoming the NFL’s career leader in postseason passing yardage. Brady came in with 5,629 yards, behind Peyton Manning (5,679), Joe Montana (5,772), and Brett Favre (5,855). With 320 yards, Brady now has 5,949 . . . The Patriots will get another crack at the Ravens next season. The AFC East members will face each team from the NFC South and AFC North. For the second season in a row, the Patriots will play a regular-season game in Baltimore . . . Rob Ninkovich had the only two sacks in the game . . . Gronkowski watched the game from team owner Robert Kraft’s luxury suite.Shalise Manza Young of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.