BALTIMORE — Ben Volin’s thoughts immediately after the Patriots’ 37-20 loss to the Ravens:
■ Sunday night’s game was the Patriots’ first true test of the season, and we learned three lessons about them:
For one, the defense that put up record-setting numbers in the first half of the season isn’t nearly as dominant as we thought it was. With the game on the line in the second half, the Ravens controlled the ball for 8 minutes, 9 seconds on one touchdown drive, and 9:35 on another touchdown drive. The Patriots allowed the Ravens to hold the ball for 37:01 for the game and score four touchdowns, equaling the number of defensive TDs the Patriots had allowed all season.
For two, the Patriots aren’t talented enough to dig out of an early 17-0 hole on the road against a quality team. Most of the other 31 NFL teams can’t either, but we thought the Patriots were better than most NFL teams. Maybe the Patriots could pull off that type of comeback at home, but not on the road against a good team. Sunday’s loss emphasized the importance of home-field advantage in the playoffs.
And for three, the offense actually inspired some confidence in the loss. The Patriots moved the ball really well in the second and third quarters, gaining 304 yards after gaining just 4 in the first quarter. The offense has been a work in progress for much of the season, but Tom Brady got in a nice rhythm with Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu, and the offensive line created big holes for the three running backs. Take out Edelman’s unfortunate fumble, which the Ravens returned 70 yards for a touchdown, and this is a completely different game.
Sunday night proved that the first eight games meant very little, on both sides of the ball. The offense is better than it had shown, and the defense really just feasted on some terrible quarterbacks.
■ The optimistic view is this was just one bad game for the Patriots’ defense, and it won’t face another quarterback such as Jackson all season. Even the vaunted ’85 Bears gave up 38 points to the Dolphins.
The pessimistic view is the Patriots’ lack of speed and conditioning was exposed, getting gashed for 210 rushing yards and allowing two long touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. The Patriots allowed the Ravens to convert 5 of 10 third downs, 1 for 1 on fourth down, and allowed touchdowns on all four of the Ravens’ red-zone opportunities. This was the first time the Patriots played a real offense all season, and they gave up 30 points — the offense gave up 7.
And now, the Patriots will face a tough stretch of quarterbacks — Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, and potentially Patrick Mahomes in their next four games. Belichick and the defense have a lot of work to do over the bye week.
■ The Patriots’ inability to slow down Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ run game was discouraging. Jackson completed 17-of-23 passes for 163 yards, a touchdown and a 107.7 rating, and he added 16 carries for 61 yards and two touchdown runs. The Patriots only sacked Jackson once, couldn’t prevent him from making some big scramble throws, and Jamie Collins got faked out of his shoes on Jackson’s first touchdown, a read-option keeper. Mark Ingram also added 115 yards on 15 carries, and the Ravens averaged 5.1 yards per carry for the game.
And yet again, the Patriots allowed a huge run. Two weeks ago, they let Nick Chubb go for 44 yards. Against Washington, the Patriots allowed a 65-yard touchdown run. Sunday night, they let Ingram rumble 53 to set up a Ravens touchdown. The Patriots can get away with giving up a big play or two against the Browns or Redskins, but not against a good team such as the Ravens.
The Patriots made some nice adjustments in the second quarter — after Bill Belichick held a whole-defense meeting on the sideline after one drive, and after Dont’a Hightower lit into his teammates after another — but couldn’t get a key stop in the second half. Belichick usually owns young quarterbacks who don’t thrive as pocket passers, but Jackson and Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman got the better of Belichick.
The game seemed to come down to two plays in the second half: Edelman’s fumble that Marlon Humphrey returned 70 yards for a score, and Ben Watson dropping a deep pass down the seam early in the fourth quarter. Brady threw an interception on the play after the Watson drop, and the Patriots’ chances of pulling off the comeback left the building. That was a strange decision by Brady, making an unnecessary risk that ruined a once-promising drive.
■ This was an impressive game plan by Josh McDaniels with a limited roster. The Patriots’ used “11” personnel — three receivers, one tight end and one running back — on every snap. And they crawled back into the game by turning to the no-huddle offense, catching the Ravens in some bad matchups and leaving them gasping for air. When the Patriots scored to make it 24-20 late in the third quarter, it felt as if the comeback was going to happen. Unfortunately, the Patriots’ defense couldn’t get off the field, and the Ravens’ defense caught its breath.
■ The Patriots also have to be really pleased with Sanu’s quick integration into the lineup. Sanu, playing in just his second game, caught 10-of-14 passes thrown his way for 81 yards and a touchdown. The Patriots desperately need dependable receivers beyond Edelman and James White, and they seem to have found one. It will be interesting to see if they can get anything out of N’Keal Harry this season.
■ The Patriots’ offensive line also played much better. The run game couldn’t get going much because of the early 17-0 deficit, but the Patriots still rushed for 4.4 yards per carry. White, Sony Michel, and Rex Burkhead each had a few nice runs.
And Brady only took two sacks, with one coming at the end of the game. Brady did take 10 hits, but considering he dropped back to pass 48 times, that number isn’t too bad. The offensive line certainly can still improve, and could use Isaiah Wynn back at left tackle, but the Patriots have to be encouraged.
■ This marks the second straight season the Patriots suffered a big loss entering the bye. Last year, it was at Tennessee, this year at Baltimore. Again, the optimist says the Patriots ran out of gas, and will regroup after the bye. The pessimist says that the Patriots simply aren’t good enough to go on the road and beat a tough team. Their first game coming out of the bye is at Philadelphia. That will be just another big test.