Ravens vs. Patriots: New England's Biggest Winners and Losers
The Patriots never had a firm grasp on Sunday's AFC Championship. The team was lethargic, deflated and uninspired from the start. Worst of all, they got physically weaker as the game progressed, while the Ravens grew increasingly stronger.
The Patriots eventually fell, 28-13.
Here are New England's biggest winners and losers from Sunday's AFC title game.
Loser: Tom Brady
Early in the second quarter, Tom Brady threw an easy touchdown to Wes Welker. The pass dripped with attitude and style. During New England's next drive, on fourth down, Brady orchestrated some delicious deception at the line of scrimmage, enabling the direct snap to Danny Woodhead to unfold perfectly.
But, shiny moments like these aside, the most powerful offense in the NFL only produced three points in the first quarter, 10 points in the second quarter and no points in the third and fourth quarters combined.
It was a staggering implosion.
Brady ended the game with one touchdown and two interceptions. Another disappointing playoff conclusion to another dazzling regular season. Upsetting and confusing, to say the least.
Winner and Loser: Wes Welker
Depending upon your perspective, Wes Welker could be viewed as a winner or loser in this game.
On one hand, he had eight catches for 117 yards and a touchdown. He regularly collected significant chunks of yardage on difficult catches (one of which was good for 36 yards). He also excelled on special teams, returning a first-quarter punt for 28 yards. Overall, a tremendous performance.
On the other hand, Welker's tremendous performance has effectively placed him in the middle of a familiar conundrum: His numbers were sensational, but the Patriots still walked away without the crown.
This is the kind of stuff that feeds into Welker's "small play" reputation. When a future Hall of Famer collects 117 yards in the AFC Championship, you'd expect that team to score more than 13 points.
Not the ideal way for Welker to head into another contract negotiation over the offseason.
Loser: New England's Defense
New England's defense looked good early.
Brandon Spikes opened the game with a series of great tackles. Aqib Talib contained Anquan Boldin. Rob Ninkovich sacked Joe Flacco. Jerod Mayo prevented Ray Rice from erupting in the ground game. Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard executed some very nice coverage on Torrey Smith.
But, as the game wore on, New England's defense got softer and softer.
Aqib Talib left with a thigh injury, which opened Baltimore's passing game. Steve Gregory's coverage melted down. Devin McCourty was a step too slow all night. Vince Wilfork looked somber on the sidelines. Brandon Spikes looked winded. There wasn't a single source of optimism anywhere.
In the third quarter, Jerod Mayo put a furious hit on Dennis Pitta. It was the kind of tackle that electrifies an entire team and reverses the momentum of a game. But this particular tackle had neither effect. Pitta got right up and caught a five-yard touchdown on the next play.
Pitta's touchdown perfectly symbolized the way this game went down; the Patriots threw gobs of muscle at the wall, but none of it stuck.
Winner: Aaron Hernandez / Loser: Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski
Aaron Hernandez had a tremendous game with nine catches for 83 yards. He made big plays and consistently influenced New England's offensive flow.
But at the end of the day, that flow was only good for 13 points.
Even though Hernandez qualifies for the winner's column, this game still had shades of the same old problem: Only one of New England's two superstar tight ends was healthy and the Patriots couldn't compensate for the battered half.
Thus far, between Rob Gronkowski's hobbled ineffectiveness in Super Bowl XLVI and his absence in Sunday's AFC Championship, these tight ends have struggled to stay healthy deep into the postseason.
Hernandez and Gronkowski are most effective when presented as a package deal; they excel as a one-two punch, where they divide defenses and allow the hotter hand to conquer. They give each other a better chance to succeed, effectively making the other successful.
Moving forward into 2013, the Patriots will likely be faced with the same old question again: Can they keep these guys healthy at the same time?
Loser: Nate Solder
Nate Solder committed a big penalty during New England's last possession of the third quarter.
At that point, the game was still within reach, with the Ravens holding a very slim lead at 14-13.
The Patriots were trying to spark some sort of fire. Tom Brady connected with Wes Welker for eight yards, then threw an incomplete pass to Brandon Lloyd.
On 3rd-and-2, Tom Brady connected with Danny Woodhead to collect four yards. Problem was, Solder got hit with a 10-yard penalty for offensive holding, which negated the conversion. The Patriots failed to convert their replay on third down, ultimately forcing a punt to conclude their scoreless third quarter.
It was one mistake in a sea of mistakes for the Patriots.
Winner: Brandon Lloyd
Brandon Lloyd was smooth all night. He made timely catches throughout the game and looked hungry to compete at a high level.
He contributed 37 yards to New England's second drive, which resulted in the first points of the game (a field goal from Stephen Gostkowski). Lloyd finished the game with seven receptions for 70 yards.
Despite this crushing conclusion to New England's season, the "Brandon Lloyd experiment" was largely a success. He finished the regular season with 74 receptions for 911 yards.
Loser: Bill Belichick
The Patriots have developed a fatal pattern of playing their best football in the regular season and their worst football in the playoffs.
Here's the evidence.
In 2007, the Patriots averaged 36.8 points per game in the regular season and finished with a 16-0 record. But they imploded during Super Bowl XLII; the Giants sacked Tom Brady five times and held him to a single passing touchdown. The Patriots only scored 14 points.
In 2009, during a playoff game against the Ravens in the Wild Card Round, the Patriots allowed Ray Rice to burn them for an 83-yard touchdown on the first play of the game. The Ravens scored again on their next possession, too, going up 14-0 after five minutes. The Patriots didn't sack Joe Flacco once all day. The Ravens sacked Tom Brady three times and they also intercepted him three times. The Patriots only scored 14 points.
In 2010, the Patriots averaged 32.4 points per game and finished the season with a 14-2 record. Then, during a playoff game against the Jets in the divisional round, the Patriots allowed Mark Sanchez to throw three touchdowns without a single interception. They didn't sack Sanchez once. Meanwhile, the Jets sacked Tom Brady five times, intercepted him once and held him to two touchdowns.
In 2011, the Patriots averaged 32.1 points per game and finished the season with a 13-3 record. Then came the ghosts. During Super Bowl XLVI, the Patriots were hit with a safety on Tom Brady's first throw of the game. The Giants sacked Brady twice and hit him eight times. New England's high-powered offense only produced 17 points all night. The Patriots lost, despite the fact that Eli Manning only threw one touchdown in the game.
In 2012, the Patriots averaged 34.8 points per game and earned a playoff bye. And, yet again, they imploded in the playoffs. They scored a dismal 13 points against the Ravens in the AFC Championship. They let Joe Flacco throw three touchdowns without an interception. Worst of all: The Patriots went scoreless in the second half.
This pattern is too clear to ignore. This isn't a lack of talent, this is a lack of leadership and preparation, starting at the top.
Bill Belichick should have his team ready to play their best football in the most important games of the postseason. Instead, the Patriots regularly look passive and baffled in these big games.
There's plenty of blame to go around, but the head coach gets the bulk of it.