I don’t really know any other way to say it: The Patriots played their worst game of the season on offense and defense, weren’t exactly helped out by the coaches, still had multiple chances to be in the game at the end, and failed to take advantage.
The result, a 28-13 loss to the Ravens in the AFC Championship game Sunday night, was, in short, a mess. Basically, everyone but special teams deserves part of the blame.
The question the Patriots will be asking themselves all season will be: Why? Why, in the biggest game of the season?
There’s no easy answer. From my standpoint, a lack of depth at the offensive skill positions, cornerback, and defensive line left the Patriots vulnerable against a worthy opponent who could stare them in the eye and not make the big mistake. Combine those things with some disappointing play by key young players, and you have a foul-smelling loss in your own house.
The biggest problems:
■ On offense, we heard all season about how the Patriots were going to be better because they were more committed to the run, and would be able to run when it was needed late in the season. Against the weaker, less physical teams in the regular season? Sure.
When it counted, the Patriots failed big-time. For the first time all season, the Patriots didn’t record a single explosive run of more than 10 yards. They had averaged 3.4 in the previous 17 games.
What made it even worse is that Baltimore absolutely dared the Patriots to run, and they couldn’t and wouldn’t. The Ravens played just three snaps of base defense, and their nickel (five defensive backs) the rest of the time. This is when the Patriots were supposed to punish the opponent for doing that. They ran 22 times against the Ravens’ nickel and averaged 3.6 yards per carry. That’s fairly pathetic.
So that means the Ravens could take care of the run while in their preferred pass defense. Tom Brady might as well have had one hand tied behind his back.
A team has to make an opponent respect the run. The Patriots never did. The big reason? The subpar run blocking from their three tight ends: Aaron Hernandez, Michael Hoomanawanui, and, to a lesser extent, Daniel Fells (who held his own). Hernandez and Hoomanawanui took turns getting rag-dolled up front.
Boy, did the Patriots miss their ultimate physical offensive weapon, tight end Rob Gronkowski, in the most physical game of the season. In the games before Gronkowski got hurt, the Patriots averaged 4.1 explosive runs per game. After: 2.1.
■ In the passing game, the Patriots allowed 19 total quarterback pressures: zero sacks, 12 hurries, and seven knockdowns. A whopping 5.5 were the responsibility of right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, three were schemed free players by the Ravens, and two were on Brady trying to keep plays alive.
■ Then there was the sequence before halftime, when Hernandez made the mistake of not going out of bounds with 26 seconds left, costing the Patriots their second timeout. Brady then made a poor choice not throwing the ball away — it was only first down — and it was compounded by Bill Belichick not taking an immediate timeout with 19 seconds left. All that was missing was an interception in the end zone and you’d have had the Seattle debacle again.
■ Defensively, the loss of cornerback Aqib Talib obviously had an impact. How much? It’s impossible to say.
It looked like the Patriots were going to be selective matching him up, as he was on the left side on four of his six passes before leaving with a thigh injury (on a fifth, the Ravens didn’t have any receivers on Talib’s side so he moved over with Alfonzo Dennard on the right).
It would not have made a difference on the Ravens’ first-half touchdown drive when they threw just one pass to a receiver. The other five passes went to tight ends and running backs. The Patriots just got their butts kicked down the field.
A few questions remain regarding the adjustments: If Marquice Cole was such a problem on Anquan Boldin, why did it take the Patriots until there was 8:27 left and the score was 28-13 for New England to match up Dennard on Boldin? The game was over then. The Patriots should have considered two other moves: inserting Patrick Chung at safety and moving Devin McCourty to cornerback to give them some height (the Ravens weren’t making big plays in the wind); or putting tight end defender Tavon Wilson (who played safety and cornerback in college) on Boldin, who is basically a tight end, and removing Cole.
I know the Patriots’ mantra is to not give up the big play, but they were too conservative considering the elements.
■ But the coverage wasn’t a huge issue — nine missed tackles (second-most for the season) and the lack of pressure on Joe Flacco was. The Patriots generated just seven total quarterback pressures (17.5 percent — only 49ers game, 16.7, was worse since Thanksgiving). Rob Ninkovich had three, while the replacements for end Chandler Jones — Justin Francis, Trevor Scott, Jermaine Cunningham, even linebacker Dont’a Hightower on a handful of blitzes — produced just one. That’s nowhere near good enough.
Basically, that’s the overall sentiment. Nowhere near good enough, by almost everybody dressed in blue Sunday night.
The position ratings from the AFC Championship game:
Quarterback (3 out of 5)
If you can’t run the ball well enough against nickel, you’re going to need an extraordinary performance from your quarterback. And while it would be easy to point to Brady and say he should be able to do that, I’m not going to do it. He didn’t have enough weapons at his disposal and there were at least three key drops.
Deion Branch is a tremendous person and pro, but if he’s playing 47 percent of your snaps in the AFC title game at this stage of his career, you’re in trouble.
That’s not to absolve Brady; he should have been a little better. On the screen to Wes Welker on the second series, Brady was pressured and it was an awkward play, but he has to make a better throw with four blockers and three defenders in front of Welker.
On the next drive, Brady felt pressure but overthrew a wide-open Hernandez. He also missed throwing the ball in better places (once to Welker). On the first play of the final series of the first quarter, Brady had Hernandez down the right sideline one-on-one with safety Bernard Pollard, and Brandon Lloyd coming free on a crossing route. Brady held it for 7.28 seconds and took an unneeded shot from Haloti Ngata.
Brady had Hernandez one-on-one against linebacker Dannell Ellerbe on the failed third and fourth downs with about eight minutes left in the game. The last interception was on Brady. Overall, I had Brady for eight questionable throws/decisions, but 10 outstanding throws and decisions.
Terrific job by Brady creating space by moving away from the blitz right before halftime and then delivering a perfect pass to Hernandez . The pass Brady made on first down with 11:04 left — 12 yards to Lloyd from the opposite hash mark — was ridiculously good
Running backs (1.5 out of 5)
A week after I praised them, they had perhaps their worst game of the season on the big stage. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen each had at least two runs on which they read the wrong hole. Ridley had the huge fumble (helmet-to-helmet is legal on established runners), Vereen a drop, and Danny Woodhead allowed a knockdown of Brady.
Receivers (2 out of 5)
This group had five broken tackles and seven standout catches (most by Welker), but everybody had issues. The tight ends couldn’t block a lick — Paul Kruger and Terrell Suggs owned them — and Welker and Lloyd each had drops. Welker’s drop in the third quarter swung the momentum. The first deep third-down throw to Welker wasn’t technically a drop — it was well outside his frame — but it’s a ball a good player should catch in a big spot. Welker also missed his block on Corey Graham on the third down to end the next series, while Dan Connolly also gave up penetration.
Offensive line (3 out of 5)
Outside of Vollmer, this group actually held its own. Center Ryan Wendell capped a stellar season with a flawless performance. Outstanding job by Wendell on the 9-yard run by Ridley with 14:49 left. He turned Ma’ake Kemoeatu right, pinned Ellerbe left, and was aided by a great cut by Ridley. In order of performance: Wendell, Logan Mankins (two hurries, knockdown), Nate Solder (1.5 hurries, two knockdowns), Connolly (two half stuffed runs, four poor run blocks) and Vollmer (5.5 hurries). And that was clearly a hold on Solder on that key third-and-2 play. It had to be called.
Defensive line (2 out 5)
There wasn’t much poor play out of this group, it was just dominated by the Ravens to a man. Ninkovich (two sacks, hurry) had by far the most impact, but he also had the most negative plays by failing to set the edge three times, missing a jam on a tight end, and lining up offside. Ravens center Matt Birk got his revenge on Vince Wilfork (knockdown, half stuff) for last year. Francis (knockdown, stuff) was out of his element as an every-down player. Nobody else did anything.
Linebackers (3 out of 5)
Jerod Mayo played well, and Brandon Spikes had a few plays, but this group had a ton of trouble covering. Spikes peeked into the backfield on Dennis Pitta’s 22-yard pass on a little pop pass against the blitz. On the second-and-10 throw on the second touchdown drive, Mayo got zero depth on his drop, making for an easy throw to Boldin against Cole, who was playing to help. Hightower was barely visible except when he gave up two edges.
Secondary (2.5 out of 5)
Kyle Arrington had perhaps his best game in coverage all season. He was a blanket. McCourty was stuck at deep safety all game while the Ravens ran and threw short. Steve Gregory’s struggles, which can be masked in big victories, were brought to light in this game. Gregory was fortunate on the third possession that Flacco slightly overthrew Pitta because he was dusted.
On the one ball the Ravens threw to a receiver on their opening scoring drive — 25 yards on second and 6 — the defense was Cover 3 robber (a free player lurks to make a play). Gregory looked like he knew he should have been better on the play. Flacco never took his eyes off the receiver and Gregory was late.
Gregory never laid a hand while Pitta scored an easy touchdown against him in man coverage. Boldin’s first touchdown over McCourty was just a great play by a strong player. On the Boldin score to make it 28-13 over Cole, I have no idea why there wasn’t a safety giving him help. It seems like there should have been one but both McCourty and Gregory were at the hash marks at the 2-yard line. Dennard was mostly solid.
Special teams (4.5 out of 5)
The Patriots won every battle in coverages — they did a great job against Jacoby Jones — and Zoltan Mesko (four of his five punts inside the 20) outkicked Sam Koch. Arrington (two tackles) and Cole stood out on coverage units.
PLAY OF THE GAME
Situation: Leading, 137, on their first drive of the second half, the Patriots were driving when they faced third and 8 at the Baltimore 34-yard line.
What happened: The Ravens bluffed a blitz, showing seven players on the line of scrimmage, including both linebackers and safety Bernard Pollard (31). At the snap, nose tackle Haloti Ngata, linebacker Ray Lewis (52) and end Paul Kruger (99) dropped into coverage as the Ravens rushed just four, and it’s easily picked up. Kruger was running a bracket coverage on Wes Welker (83) defending the inside, while cornerback Corey Graham (24) played over the top as a pseudo safety. Welker and Tom Brady (12) both read it perfectly as Welker broke wide open to the sideline at the 25 and Brady threw it right at Welker’s face. But Welker, who had just been lit up by Pollard three plays earlier on an illegal hit to the head, peeked at the defenders as the ball hit his hands and he dropped it. After a 21-yard punt by the Patriots on fourth and 8, the Ravens scored on the next possession to take a lead they would not relinquish.
ON HIS GAME
Ryan Wendell, center
Had a completely clean sheet — no quarterback pressures or bad run blocks allowed — in the biggest game of his career. Totally controlled the middle of the line.
OFF HIS GAME
Michael Hoomanawanui, tight end
Was completely overmatched trying to fill Rob Gronkowski’s blocking role in two-tightend sets against the physical Ravens, and appeared to be benched after 16 snaps for Daniel Fells (30) — a move that surprisingly wasn’t made earlier this season.Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.