BALTIMORE — This is what we wanted, wasn’t it? A real test for the Patriots?
We got it Sunday night in Baltimore.
New England ultimately failed, losing the first game this season by a whopping 37-20 score. But they did fight, and because of it, a night that began like an open-air dance party for the hometown fans turned into the Patriots’ most entertaining game of the season, if ultimately their most disappointing.
The first quarter was a complete “F” for the Pats, as in total failure, as in one of the worst quarters of football they played this season, as in all of a sudden that perfect record looked like the mirage so many accused it of being, earned at the expense of a weak-to-weak schedule. As in this one-word description from safety Duron Harmon: “Bad.”
It was a quarter that included 11 first downs for the Ravens and one for New England. It was a quarter that totaled 136 yards for the Ravens and 4 for New England. It was a quarter that featured 23 plays for the Ravens’ offense and seven for New England’s, which translates to 12:48 time of possession for the Ravens and 2:12 for New England. It was a quarter that included two uncharacteristic Patriot mistakes, the first a costly neutral-zone infraction by Shilique Calhoun that came on fourth down, turning a potential field goal into a first down and then a touchdown one play later, the second on the final play of the quarter when Adam Butler’s similar mistake gave Baltimore another first down.
It was a quarter that ended with the Ravens up, 10-0, but on the strength of that second mistake, positioned them less than a minute from a 17-0 lead. It was a quarter that featured the best of Lamar Jackson and the best of the offense around him, with sustained drives (6:47 and 5:20) and quick strikes (a 26-yard completion to Marquise Brown, an 18-yard run by Jackson) that shredded, exhausted, and embarrassed the Patriots’ vaunted defense.
It was a quarter that helped turn M&T Bank Stadium into a Baltimore rock concert, the full eruption of which was felt just 54 seconds into the second quarter, when Mark Ingram’s 53-yard explosion from scrimmage set up a 12-yard touchdown run by Gus Edwards.
It was a quarter to set the NFL landscape alight with shock, with the Ravens so utterly dominant over their undefeated AFC rival.
“We didn’t start the way we wanted to, being down 17-0 in games like this is not where you want to be,” Harmon said. “That’s a team that’s built to win from ahead, and that’s what they did.”
But the Patriots made it a game. They dug in, rallying behind angry directions from an angry Bill Belichick and behind sideline exhortations from veteran captain Dont’a Hightower. As if catching their breath after failing phase one, they started clawing back in. The Ravens muffed a punt, and Justin Bethel recovered at the 20-yard line. Four plays later, Tom Brady hit Mohamed Sanu for a touchdown, which extended Brady’s record by adding a 74th member to that exclusive club.
They finally stopped Jackson and Co. on their next offensive possession, and followed with a long drive of their own. It ended with a punt, but it restored some sense of equilibrium to the proceedings. As if to prove it, two plays into the Ravens’ next possession, Kyle Van Noy forced a fumble and Lawrence Guy recovered it at the Baltimore 19. Six plays later, Nick Folk cut the deficit to 17-10 by hitting a 22-yard chip shot, his first field goal as a Patriot. One more chip shot just before halftime (though on fourth and goal from the 1 Belichick would have been better served to go for it, which he admitted afterward to considering) and this was definitely a game.
“It’s two good football teams — we weren’t going to lay down,” Devin McCourty said.
But the revival was short-lived.
“We competed out there. It just wasn’t good enough,” Belichick said. “We all have got to a better job, starting with me . . . Obviously we didn’t do anything normal, certainly didn’t coach well. Give them credit, they were better than we were tonight, certainly the better team.”
We all pointed to this portion of the Patriots’ schedule as that real test, one that might have started a week ago had the Browns not reverted to usual Browns form after their exciting offseason personnel overhaul. The Ravens are followed by the bye next week, followed by the Eagles, the Cowboys, the Texans, and the Chiefs. Much as the players could do nothing about who they’d played previously, those walkovers over the likes of the Jets (twice), the Giants, the Dolphins, and the Redskins did nary enough to prepare them for a night like this.
“I always say in football and in life, that it’s hard to win without adversity,” veteran captain Matthew Slater said. “Certainly things have been going pretty smoothly for us this year. But adversity is a good teacher.”
The lessons start now.
“I think losses always find a way to recalibrate how you see yourself,” Brady said. “We obviously have a lot to do. This obviously wasn’t good enough. You get beat by 17 points, that’s not what we’re all about.”
Brady had his moments, too, at least after that dismal first quarter. He hit Julian Edelman 10 times for 89 yards, found Sanu 10 times for 81. He spread the ball to Ben Watson and James White and Phillip Dorsett and Rex Burkhead. But he wasn’t happy, not after another night of trying to escape constant pressure, after getting sacked twice for 17 yards but getting hit countless more times, not after seeing Edelman get stripped after reaching for 1 too many yards early in the third quarter and watching Baltimore’s Marlon Humphrey take that ball back 70 yards for a touchdown.
This was a test after all, and Brady isn’t accustomed to failing. Not many of these Patriots are. That’s what veteran linebacker Hightower was trying to revive with his fiery first-half speech, when McCourty said he kept saying, “Keep playing, just keep playing.”
“When you get to play the games we’ve been playing these first weeks of the season, it had been a smooth ride,” McCourty said. “They were definitely better [than us Sunday night], but we have to be mature enough to do what we need to do.”