FOXBOROUGH — We kept waiting for the big comeback. We waited for the goofy bounce that would go in favor of the Patriots. We waited for the opponents to bow at the altar of Gillette Stadium and melt into a puddle at the sight of Messrs. Belichick and Brady. We waited for Walt Coleman to call the Tuck Rule, or Billy Cundiff to miss an easy field goal attempt. We waited for the football gods to shine some light on the ever-fortunate sons of New England.
None of that happened Sunday night. The ever-lucky Patriots found no horseshoes. Pitted against a mean team of men who were not afraid (hello, Ray Lewis and John Harbaugh), they were beaten and beaten soundly.
The fourth-seeded, 9-point underdog Baltimore Ravens scored 21 unanswered points after intermission and thrashed the Patriots, 28-13, in the AFC Championship game.
Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Bob Kraft, and the lifeguard chairs will not be making the return trip to New Orleans Feb. 3. There will be no opportunity to avenge two Super Bowl losses to the Giants. Super Bowl XLVII will be all about the head coaching Harbaugh brothers (San Francisco’s Jim vs. Baltimore’s John), and the final game for the fearsome Lewis.
This should not be a huge shock. The Patriots were good this year, but they were not Super Bowl good. A lot of it was mythology. New England was artificially inflated by the pathetic AFC East, a weak conference, and the perfectly timed implosion of the 11-1 Houston Texans. Houston’s fold enabled the Patriots to get to the AFC title game without playing a legitimate playoff team.
The Patriots finally found a worthy rival Sunday and it was bloody. This was a beatdown. The Patriots wound up being exposed, just as the Texans were exposed. And the key play was made by Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, the same guy whose hit took out Brady in the first game of the 2008 season. This time, Pollard demolished Patriots running back Stevan Ridley, forcing a critical fumble and knocking Ridley out of the game.
“Overall, it was a pretty positive season,’’ said Belichick. “Tonight we just didn’t do enough things well enough to win. The Ravens outplayed and outcoached us and that’s pretty much the story.”
Patriots fans no doubt will blame injuries. Cornerback Aqib Talib, safety Patrick Chung, lineman Kyle Love, and Ridley were KO’d Sunday night and the mighty Rob Gronkowski broke his arm last week. Wes Welker dropped a pass in the third quarter on a huge third down. But make no mistake: the better team won this game. The Ravens beat the Patriots earlier this season. The Ravens would have been in overtime against the Patriots in the AFC title game last year if not for the missed chip shot by Cundiff. The Ravens thrashed the Patriots, 33-14, here in the playoffs in January of 2010. The Ravens are legit.
Brady has trouble with the Ravens. QB12 Sunday night completed 29 of 54 passes for 320 yards but was picked off twice. In three playoff games against Baltimore, he has three touchdown passes and seven interceptions. Baltimore won the turnover battle Sunday night, 3-0.
The visitors asserted themselves from the jump. Lewis won the coin toss and announced that the Ravens would make the Patriots take the ball. This was an indication that Harbaugh has been paying attention. The Patriots, as every fan knows, never want the ball to start the game. It takes away the famed “double score” opportunity at the end of the first half and beginning of the second half.
The Patriots dominated field position in the first quarter. In succession, Baltimore started drives on the 13-, 8-, 10-, and 10-yard lines. Joe Flacco missed a couple of open receivers. In the second quarter, Baltimore moved 90 yards on 13 plays, covering 5:51. It was quiet in Foxborough when Ray Rice ran it across the goal line from 2 yards out to give the visitors a 7-3 lead. Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” blared over the loudspeakers.
The Patriots answered with a 79-yard TD drive of their own, capping the surge when Brady connected with Welker on a 1-yard pass while Baltimore defensive backs Chykie Brown and Corey Graham argued in the end zone. New England led, 10-7.
Rare clock mismanagement cost the Patriots at the end of the half and New England settled for a 25-yard field goal. The Patriots led, 13-7, but everyone knew they could have led 17-7 with a little more Patriot-like precision. Brady’s record in games in which the Patriots led at halftime was 67-0.
The Patriots’ first drive after intermission stalled because of a bad drop by Welker. Gisele Bundchen could not have been pleased. On the ensuing possession, Flacco led the visitors 87 yards, pushing Baltimore to a 14-13 lead on a 5-yard touchdown pass to Dennis Pitta.
After the Ravens took a 21-13 lead on a 3-yard pass to Anquan Boldin, Ridley was blasted near midfield by Pollard with 12:46 left. The Riddler fumbled and Baltimore’s Arthur Jones recovered. The play was reviewed and the fumble was confirmed. Shocker.
Baltmore struck quickly, taking a 28-13 lead on an 11-yard pass to Boldin.
The Patriots never scored again.
“I think we obviously didn’t play very well,’’ said Brady. “And if you don’t play well against a good team, it’s not even very competitive.’’
The Patriots are New England’s best team in this century, but they have not won a Super Bowl since the 2004 season. Opportunities for Brady and Belichick are dwindling. Brady will be 36 next year. Welker might be Nevermore. It’s beginning to feel like the end of an era.Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.