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CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER

It’s Super Bowl or bust for the Patriots, and losing to the Ravens helps them get there

Bill Belichick didn’t have the answers Sunday, but he tends to come up with them eventually.
Bill Belichick didn’t have the answers Sunday, but he tends to come up with them eventually.jim davis/Globe Staff

The Baltimore Ravens provided the Patriots with a reality check and a reminder that competition, though scarce in the AFC and entirely absent from the first half of New England’s schedule, actually exists. It’s not akin to the search for extraterrestrial life. The Patriots plummeted out of undefeated orbit and crashed back down to NFL earth at the hands of Lamar Jackson and the Ravens Sunday night at M&T Bank Stadium.

In the long run, they’ll be better for it.

Losing isn’t fun, but it can be informative and instructive. That’s especially true when you’re the Patriots, who face a Super Bowl-or-bust binary existence. There’s one acceptable outcome to their season, and reality-check losses like this one help them get closer to that a lot more than starting 8-0 by clowning clueless teams like Washington, the Jets, and the Browns.

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Those teams won’t stand in the way of a seventh Super Bowl title. The small cadre of clubs like Baltimore that can push the Patriots will.

This was a useful defeat. It will serve them well the rest of the season and during this defining five-game, six-week stretch that pressed pause on their weak-to-weak schedule.

At this stage of New England’s enduring dynasty, both the enjoyment and the improvement come in facing resistance, not imposing preordained dominance. After this humbling 37-20 loss, it’s cleanup in Aisle Belichick during the bye week, a perfect time to recalibrate after the reality distortion field created by an epic 8-0 start.

Elandon Roberts and the Patriots couldn’t slow down the Ravens when it mattered Sunday.
Elandon Roberts and the Patriots couldn’t slow down the Ravens when it mattered Sunday.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

It was never sustainable for the Patriots defense, still the best in the NFL, to continue playing the way it did during the first eight games, scoring as many touchdowns as it allowed (four) and scooping up turnovers like Halloween candy. Even factoring in points surrendered by the offense and special teams units, the Patriots were allowing an impossibly low 7.6 points per game.

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It turns out the Patriots defense is not impervious to points. The Boogeymen had surrendered four offensive touchdowns over eight games and 105 drives. They allowed four offensive touchdowns to Baltimore in eight drives, excluding a kneel-down to end the first half. A defense that had allowed just a 15.6 percent third-down conversion rate allowed Baltimore to convert 5 of 10.

Best Defense Ever proved mortal on this night.

Tackling Jackson is like trying to catch a moth in a hurricane. He is a sui generis challenge. But the Patriots actually did a decent job containing Jackson, who rushed 16 times for 61 yards and a pair of short touchdowns and threw for 163 yards and a score. If there’s a bigger area of concern that will carry over, it’s the Patriots getting manhandled in the running game.

Baltimore ran the ball 41 times for 210 yards. Even if you subtract Mark Ingram’s 53-yard gallop, he still averaged 4.4 yards per rush. The Patriots allowed the Browns to average 7.2 yards per carry the prior week with Nick Chubb bouncing off tacklers. They had their hands full with Buffalo bowling ball Frank Gore, who averaged 6.4 yards per carry.

Power run games and big, physical backs seem to be an issue for a defense that is at its best confusing quarterbacks and blanketing receivers. The Patriots are allowing 4.7 yards per carry and have surrendered four running plays of 40 or more yards, tying them with Carolina and Jacksonville for the most in the league.

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Defensive linemen Byron Cowart (left) and Lawrence Guy were worn out at the end of Sunday’s game.
Defensive linemen Byron Cowart (left) and Lawrence Guy were worn out at the end of Sunday’s game.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Teams that can’t run the ball or contain the run have a hard time snuggling the Lombardi Trophy.

The other carryover from this loss is that the Patriots remain susceptible to mobile quarterbacks who can go off-script and make plays. There is a reason that the Russell Wilsons and Patrick Mahomes of the world have more success against the Patriots. Bill Belichick plans for everything, but you can’t anticipate some of the improvisational plays that elusive QBs make. Sometimes worrying about those plays slows down your game.

The Patriots opened in zone defense with heavy personnel against Baltimore. In the first quarter, when they were subjected to a 17-0 deluge, they appeared more concerned about playing to Baltimore’s strengths than their own, suffocating man defense and amorphous fronts.

It will be interesting to see how the Patriots approach the remaining elusive quarterbacks lined up for this defining stretch of the season: Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, and Patrick Mahomes, all excellent escape artists.

Some deficiencies from this loss will fix themselves. The drive-extending defensive penalties and Julian Edelman’s back-breaking fumble that was returned for a touchdown were anomalies for the bloodless Patriots.

Others like lack of proficiency, consistency, and explosiveness on offense will require more tinkering. It’s still just far too much of a grind for Tom Brady and the Patriots offensively, especially when they don’t benefit from primo field position via turnovers.

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Wideout Mohamed Sanu being such a big part of the offense in just his second game is promising in one respect, but revealing in another. It’s a sign of how desperately the Patriots are searching for offensive traction and options that someone who has been here for 30 seconds is an immediate featured guy.

Mohamed Sanu hauled in a second-quarter touchdown pass Sunday against the Ravens.
Mohamed Sanu hauled in a second-quarter touchdown pass Sunday against the Ravens.Todd Olszewski/Getty Images

Even with Sanu and Edelman performing well, it’s hard not to notice that the two longest pass plays the last two weeks were to running back James White — a 59-yard screen pass against Cleveland and a 30-yard slant-and-go route Sunday night.

It’s also hard not to notice that the Patriots continue to be uncharacteristically mediocre on third down and in the red zone.

The sky is not falling in Foxborough. The Patriots are still the favorites in the AFC, but the first half of their schedule lent itself to a false sense of security regarding the gap between them and the real competition. They scored vacant victories against teams who played face-palm football when confronted with a polished, imposing defense and Brady’s gleaming aura of greatness. (For context, the Bills are 6-2 with a similar schedule.)

Curb-stomping the less fortunate is welcome and impressive in a league where teams lose to lesser outfits every week. But real feedback and pushback remain required for the Patriots to be at their best for the only season that matters around here, the postseason.

Sunday night’s setback in Baltimore delivered both. It wasn’t the end of the world, rather the beginning of the Foxborough fine-tuning.

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Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.