The Ravens left no doubt that they were the better team, dispatching the Patriots for a second time this season and holding them under two touchdowns for the first time since the 2009 regular season.
The Patriots took a 13-7 lead into the locker room, but in the second half, Baltimore just got better and better, and New England just made mistake after mistake. For all of the talk about how the Ravens would be tired from their double-overtime game against Denver, it was the Patriots who ran out of gas.
Not so fast.
The fact is, despite the outcome, this Patriots team was the best one since 2007, and it's important to never overreact to one loss when the Patriots' overall body of work continues to be outstanding.
However, the loss to the Ravens was no fluke. It wasn't an outlier loss; it was one that exposed every major weakness that the Patriots battled all season long. There was no new truth learned in this AFC Championship Game. The areas where the Patriots need to improve are as clear now as they were after their September loss in Baltimore.
Still, all of the major pieces will remain in place for New England in 2013.
Bill Belichick sums it up this way: It is either euphoria or a crash landing in NFL. Patriots had a crash landing. Didn't capitalize.— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) January 21, 2013
On defense, their rebuilding process, which began in 2009, finally started to come together. The acquisition of Aqib Talib enabled them to play more man-to-man defense, and they really started to excel. It was often ugly on that side of the ball early in the season, but by the end of the year, they looked like a new defense. They took some great strides, and with five rookies who had major roles by the end of the season, they should only continue to get better.
Offensively, they were once again the best in the NFL despite injuries to two key pieces in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez that nagged them throughout the year. That doesn't always translate in the playoffs against the top defenses, but given what the Pats overcame, it's hard to say that they failed to construct an adequate offense.
It's just unfortunate that they were never able to fully run the offense that they wanted to, and it was even more unfortunate how bad their execution was in the red zone in the biggest game of the year.
Despite being 12-4 and hosting the AFC Championship Game, there are definitely areas where the Patriots will need to improve this offseason.
The Ravens were able to expose the Patriots' biggest defensive weakness by attacking the middle of the field. Fifteen of Joe Flacco's 21 completed passes were thrown in the middle. All season long, they struggled there, with Football Outsiders having them ranked 30th and 29th covering tight ends and "other" wide receivers, respectively.
On offense, Wes Welker is the biggest question mark of the offseason. Welker had another significant drop against the Ravens that was vaguely reminiscent of his drop in last year's Super Bowl. Regardless if Welker is back or not, the Patriots need to improve at the wide receiver position, where they could use an infusion of size and speed, especially on the outside.
There will be a time when Belichick, Brady and the Patriots start to decline, but 2013 won't be the year. They remain one of the smartest and most competitive organizations in football. They have holes to fill, like every team does, but with Brady and a young defense that should only continue to improve, you can be sure that they'll be back and ready for another run at the Super Bowl in September.