Another year, another empty trip in the playoffs for the New England Patriots. On the biggest stage, the Patriots just couldn't get it done, again. Really, the Pats played their worst game of the season, and probably the worst second-half of football in a long time.
Here's the thing, though, the Pats didn't get entirely outplayed nor were they the worse team. They could have won this game and advanced to the Super Bowl. However, these four shortcomings by the Patriots in the biggest game of the season kept them from advancing to the Super Bowl for the second straight year.
I'm going to try not to dwell on this because there was nothing the Patriots could do to change it, but this game would have been different if the Pats had been healthy.
They were missing the best tight end in the league (Rob Gronkowski) and their best young pass-rusher (Chandler Jones). Then during the game they had injuries to their only shut-down corner (Aqib Talib), starting defensive tackle Kyle Love and star running back Stevan Ridley (thanks to the Pat-killer Bernard Pollard).
There is no chance that Joe Flacco would have been able to pick apart the Pats' secondary like if Talib was shutting down either Torrey Smith or Anquan Boldin. Rob Gronkowski would have solved the Patriots' red-zone issues. Kyle Love would have been one more big body in the middle to stop the run. And Chandler Jones could have rushed Flacco's throws and even sacked him once or twice.
Like I said, though, there was nothing the Pats could do to fix the injury problems, but I would be remiss not to mention all of these injuries as one of the causes of their elimination.
Both the Ravens and the Patriots got into the red zone four times in the AFC Championship. The Ravens turned each trip inside the 20 into seven points while the Patriots managed just one touchdown in the same number of trips.
The Patriots' four drives in the red zone went like this:
Stevan Ridley got stuffed at the line on 3rd-and-2 at the 12; Stephen Gostowski kicked a field goal.
Pats got to the one-yard-line and had goal to go. It took them three plays before they finally punched it into the end zone with a pass to Wes Welker.
They mismanaged the clock at the end of the first half by Aaron Hernandez not getting out of bounds and Tom Brady scrambling instead of throwing the ball away. As a result, they ran out of time and were forced to settle for three.
And finally, the Pats had the ball at the Baltimore 19 with three chances to get four yards for a first down and, on all three plays, Brady threw an incompletion, leading to a turnover on downs.
That type of production in the red area is the worst the Patriots have seen in a long time. Had they been their typical efficient, scoring selves in the red zone, then this game could have easily been 28-28 and headed for overtime. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case.
In the second-half, it seemed that Joe Flacco and the Ravens' offense could get whatever they wanted through the air. Without Aquib Talib, the Patriots didn't have one defensive back who could stay with Torrey Smith or Anquan Boldin.
Even the safety help over the top wasn't enough as the bigger and stronger receivers went relatively uncontested in the final half of play.
To make matters worse, even the linebackers had trouble staying with the Ravens' tight ends and backs in the passing game. The result, essentially, was Joe Flacco finding all of the receivers, tight ends and backs that the Pats failed to blanket in coverage, and the Baltimore offense marching up the field for 21 unanswered second-half points.
It also didn't help that the front seven got little pressure on the seemingly untouchable Joe Flacco, but that's another story.
I can look back at the game and point to six plays that could have changed the game if they went the other way.
Most notably, the Patriots had at least three drives end on third down dropped passes. Including, Welker on the first drive, failing to haul in a catch-able deep ball that probably could have been thrown better on Brady's part. In either case, Welker was open, but him and Brady couldn't connect. Then, there was another Welker drop on third down in which the ball was right in his hands, with no one near him. Finally, Brandon Lloyd dropped a pass on third down after stumbling on his route.
On a similar note, Shane Vereen dropped a short pass in the red zone that would have given the Patriots a first down, late in the game. Two plays later, the Pats turned the ball over on downs.
Besides the drops and drive-killers, the Patriots also committed all three turnovers in the game, two of them on fluke plays.
The first turnover came in the fourth quarter when the Pats still had a chance to win. After a couple of easy first downs and an eight-yard run by Stevan Ridley, he went head-to-head with Bernard Pollard who injured his fourth crucial Patriots player (Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and now Ridley).
On the play, Ridley was clearly knocked unconscious and, thus, dropped the ball. The Ravens recovered and scored their final touchdown of the game on the resulting short field.
Two drives later, the Pats were in striking distance of the end zone at the 24-yard line, with the game still winnable. However, a pass, tipped at the line, soared an extra ten yards right into the hands of Ravens linebacker Ellerbe.
There is just no saying how the game would have turned out if two of the four drops were caught or one of the two turnovers didn't happen. These were the six plays that determined the game; these plays went the Ravens' way, not the Patriots.
As a result, the Ravens are playing in the Super Bowl on February 3rd, and the Patriots are watching at home.