The New England Patriots' attempt at a second consecutive trip to the Super Bowl (and sixth in the Brady-Belichick era) came crashing to a halt thanks to a 28-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens Sunday night in Foxborough.
This ends what had been a promising season for New England, which saw the Patriots finish the regular season 12-4, win the AFC East by five games, and once again finish with one of the best offenses in the NFL.
There is plenty of blame to go around for why the Patriots won't be making the trip to New Orleans, from the top all the way to the bottom. One could, of course, say that all 53 men on the roster plus the entire coaching staff are to blame, but we're going to look at the five people who shoulder the most blame for the Pats' disappointing postseason exit.
We might as well start at the top, with head coach Bill Belichick.
Belichick has slowly morphed into this decade's Marty Schottenheimer. New England seemed to come on to the Gillette field not playing to win, but rather playing not to lose. Throughout the first half, New England had plenty of chances to turn the game into a shootout, which would've obviously favored the Patriots' explosive offense.
Instead, Belichick played it too conservatively, deciding to run the ball on 3rd-and-2 from the Baltimore 12-yard line rather than using a Brady screen pass to Welker, which had been a success against the Ravens throughout the game.
At the end of the first half, we saw poor clock management from Belichick, who seemed to outsmart himself with the play-calling by going to the run game a bit more than he should've. It was the difference between New England going in with a 17-7 lead and plenty of momentum, and a 13-7 lead with shaky momentum.
New England was outscored 21-0 in the second half, which saw some baffling play-calling to go along with the Ravens' exploitation of a banged-up Patriots secondary.
This has to be one of Belichick's worst-coached games at New England, and it cost them a trip to New Orleans. But he's obviously not alone.
Vince Wilfork dominated the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. He recorded three tackles and a sack in dominating the Ravens in the trenches, allowing New England's linebackers to put pressure on Joe Flacco throughout the afternoon.
That was last year, though; this year, he was held in check by Ravens center Matt Birk and was only able to record a single tackle and little else.
Overall, the Patriots defense would only get two sacks on Flacco (both thanks to Rob Ninkovich), who, for the most part, was able to pick apart a depleted secondary on his way to scoring 21 unanswered points in the second half.
Baltimore also had a respectable 121 yards on the ground.
Wilfork didn't play up to his standards, which only exacerbated New England's defensive woes in the second half.
This would've been a completely different game for the Patriots had Stevan Ridley been able to stay in the game.
When Ridley was in the game, he had run for 70 yards on 18 carries and became an even bigger workhorse for the Patriots in the second half.
However, with New England down 21-13 and driving on the Ravens, the second-year back sustained a hard hit from Ravens safety Bernard Pollard. It looked like it concussed him the moment he felt the hit and, predictably, caused a fumble on the play.
This was the play that swung the game, but one could hardly fault Ridley, as I don't think Ridley was even conscious in falling to the ground.
The blame goes to Pollard, who either has a major vendetta against the Patriots, or always seems to appear at the wrong place at the wrong time. The hit and fumble would swing the outcome of the game, as Baltimore would follow that up with a touchdown. And from there, they wouldn't look back.
So why "blame" Pollard when he was just doing his job? Well, he hit Ridley in the head, which normally is flagged. But Ridley does deserve some blame, too, as he seemed to duck into the hit (which is likely why there wasn't a penalty called).
Speaking of spotty officiating, it also appeared that Ridley was down on the play—I feel I have to disclose that.
Devin McCourty had a fairly simple job to do, which was to help cover Anquan Boldin.
The good news for McCourty is, he was able to rack up eight tackles.
The bad news is what Boldin wound up doing to McCourty: five catches for 60 yards and two touchdowns.
Now, you could say that the injuries to Aqib Talib and Patrick Chung made McCourty's job measurably tougher. I'd accept that, except McCourty was assigned to Boldin throughout the game.
In the end, he allowed Flacco to find Boldin when the Ravens needed most, and the result was 14 points—just one less than the Ravens' margin of victory.
Yes, Tom Brady is responsible for New England's second-half collapse.
It actually started at the end of the second quarter, when Brady chose to scramble for three yards instead of throwing the ball away. Throwing the ball away would've at least given the Patriots a few more seconds to get off another play, while also saving them the timeout they called to set up the field goal. That's four points he likely took off the board.
Then, in the second half, it only got worse. Brady wouldn't throw his interceptions until New England was already down 15; however, the Patriots would get the ball three times after going down 15.
The results of that included New England turning the ball over on downs at the Ravens' 19. Now that would've been a good play for Brady to actually scramble. Despite Haloti Ngata being in Brady's vicinity, Brady still had plenty of open field around him to run for the first down.
Instead, he threw the ball to what seemed to be Lennay Kekua, as there was nobody anywhere near where Brady wound up throwing the ball.
Then the next two possessions would see Brady interceptions. He didn't look like the old Tom Brady anymore, who still had me convinced that the Patriots would win due to his reputation and past success.
But instead, Brady wound up being one of the many reasons why the Patriots will not be headed to the Super Bowl.