Unlike most college football games, whenever one team in the NFL is down by three touchdowns or more, it’s hard for another team, regardless of how talented it is, to come back and win. It’s pretty much a wrap by that time.
Shockingly, this was the sad conclusion that the New England Patriots had to face at Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts, where they were down 24-0, mostly off turnovers and bad rush defense, to the Baltimore Ravens.
By the first quarter.
It was a shock to many because the Pats have hardly lost on their home turf, where they’ve won several postseason games, including the controversial “Tuck Rule” game against the Oakland Raiders in 2002.
That previously mentioned game put star quarterback Tom Brady on the map, and led to the team's first of four Super Bowl appearances in the 2000s, a decade in which owner Robert Kraft and head coach Bill Belichick held the reins to one of the most dominant and winningest franchises (over 110 wins in 10 seasons) in the league.
As of two years ago, if another Manning (Eli) did not elude a menacing pass rush and find a wide receiver by the name of David Tyree for a pivotal first down catch late in Super Bowl XLII, many would have placed the 2007 Pats (18-1 record, 589 record-setting points) on top of the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the best team to finish the regular season and postseason undefeated.
Back to reality: On Sunday afternoon, the Patriots looked out of sync for most of the ballgame, as the Ravens ravenously attacked Brady (three interceptions, three sacks, one costly fumble, fewer than 160 yards passing) and New England at home, 33-14, in the 2010 AFC Divisional Wild Card game.
Whether it was the crucial loss of slot receiver Wes Welker to two, season-ending knee ligament tears in the last game of the 2009 season against the Houston Texans, or if Brady himself will never resemble the player he once was in 2007 (or even before that, when he won both three Super Bowls and babes like Bridget Moynahan and Gisele Bundchen), the Pats did not look like a formidable unit this weekend.
You can blame the Pats’ loss—and also its forthcoming demise?—on several things: the questionable moves to let go good defensive players over the years (Asante Samuel, Richard Seymour and Mike Vrabel are a few names that come to mind), a weaker offensive line, a non-existent rushing attack in today’s game, or the departure of great coordinators (Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, Josh McDaniels) in the past five years.
The loss can also be attributed to Belichick, who may have too much authority (former New England president of football operations/GM Scott Pioli’s now in Kansas City) and too much zeal in wanting to release great team veterans for unheralded players plucked out of NFL drafts, à la Bill Walsh, the San Francisco 49ers coaching legend, who famously used to wheel and deal for his team in the 1980s and 1990s.
This shocker in New England could be a one-year hiccup, or the beginning of an end of an era that won’t return to glory any time soon.
Belichick is a detail-oriented, defensive genius who was starting to show cracks in his non-descript countenance this season, first by going on a fourth-and-two play against the Colts in a game they seemed to have in hand but ended up losing.
Then later in New Orleans, the vertical juggernaut led by head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees befuddled an untested Patriots secondary and embarrassed New England in a Monday Night Football matchup, 38-17.
I cannot blame Belichick and Brady alone. Randy Moss has to bear some of the burden, too. The mercurial wide receiver seems to have reverted to the gifted odd-ball from Minnesota (forget his stint in Oakland for a second), who became less spectacular in catching receptions for long bombs and began to play with less heart, especially in passing routes down the middle.
Again, the Ravens played to the Pats’ weaknesses quite well, with a familiar swagger in their defense and an above-adequate running method—essential tools needed sorely for any NFL team to win in January.
Furthermore, the Ravens' convincing win was a testament to second-year head coach Jim Harbaugh and second-year quarterback Joe Flacco’s influence on a Baltimore team that required balance and guidance.
The defense has always been great, but their offense has finally found some genuine pieces (Flacco, Ray Rice, Michael Oher) to a puzzle that, if general manager Ozzie Newsome and owner Steve Bisciotti continue to read their blueprint correctly, might lead the team to another Super Bowl (at least once) in the 2010s.
Yet if Kraft and Belichick don’t right their biggest wrongs early (to protect Brady; acquire one more bona fide receiver other than Welker and Moss; and beef up the defense, particularly, the secondary), then they’ll end up searching for answers and looking up to Baltimore throughout this new decade.