The New England Patriots faced off against the Baltimore Ravens on a windy and cool January night in Foxboro, MA for the AFC Championship. The Ravens, riding high after knocking off top seed Denver last week, came into town and blew the wheels off the Patriots on both sides of the ball in a game-changing 3rd quarter. From the get-go the Patriots offense was not clicking on all cylinders as, after picking up a quick first down, failed to convert on 3rd and 2 for the first time. After forcing a 3-and-out, the Patriots drove to the Baltimore 12, but again on 3rd and 2 they settled for 3 points. Notable for New England was that rookie defensive end Chandler Jones did not start and spent most of the game on the sideline, as he clearly was not healthy enough to go.
Baltimore and New England traded punts early but the game changed as the Patriots watched starting cornerback Aqib Talib hobble off in the first quarter with a hamstring/thigh injury and he did not return. With the Patriots forced to move nickel corner Kyle Arrington to cover receiver Torrey Smith, the Ravens began airing the ball out. After another round of punts, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco led Baltimore 90 yards on 12 plays highlighted by Baltimore wide receiver Torrey Smith burning Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington for 25 yards. This was followed shortly by the Ravens taking a 7-3 lead on a 2 yard touchdown run by Ray Rice, highlighted by missed tackles by Patriots linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jerod Mayo.
The Patriots, who had been controlling the time of possession finished the half off by driving downfield and scoring on a 1-yard touchdown pass by quarterback Tom Brady to wide receiver Wes Welker. It looked as if Baltimore’s defense would hold the to 3, but there was a miscommunication in the secondary leading to Welker being uncovered in the flat.
Rob Ninkovich ended the next drive by Baltimore with a big play, sacking Flacco on 3rd-and-6 to force a punt and give the Patriots the ball with just over 2 minutes before the half. A direct-snap to running back Danny Woodhead on 4th-and-1 netted 7 yards to extend the drive which ended with uncharacteristic bad clock management. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady scrambled on 1st-and-10 with 0:26 seconds left and with about 11 seconds left tried to get the team to the line before taking the final timeout with 0:04 seconds left and not giving themselves another chance to throw to the end zone and settling for a field goal to end the half.
The Patriots never seemed to open it up or get clicking in the first half. Running back Stevan Ridley ran well at times, and wide receiver Brandon Lloyd and tight end Aaron Hernandez were the primary targets in the first half. The defense held up for the most part, but punter Zoltan Mesko was the first half MVP as he continually pinned the Ravens inside their own 15 yard line, no matter whether punting into the wind or with it. There were no turnovers in the first half by either squad, and the strangest part of the offensive game plan was that the Patriots offense seemed unable to gain yardage on 2nd and 3rd and short. There were hurry-up runs that went nowhere and Brady standing in the pocket with no one open to throw to downfield.
The Patriots defense held to open the 2nd half and quarterback Tom Brady came right back and picked up a quick first down and then moved the ball on a long completion to wide receiver Wes Welker and a 15-yard penalty for helmet-to-helmet hit on Ravens safety Bernard Pollard tacked on the end of the play. Unfortunately, Welker got open on 3rd and 7 and dropped the ball forcing yet another Patriots punt from inside the Baltimore 40 yard line.
Baltimore decided to test the Patriots secondary moving to shot gun and got a big gain of 22 yard over the middle to tight end Dennis Pitta. Throw in pass interference and some big first down conversions, and Flacco the hit tight end Dennis Pitta again for a touchdown as Baltimore retook the lead. Patriots safety Steve Gregory was burnt in the passing game and missed tackles on both Ravens running backs and the score was 14-13 Baltimore.
After the Patriots failed to convert a 2nd and 2 and punted yet again, the Ravens moved quickly down the field as again it was Flacco to Torrey Smith for 24 yards deep down the middle on 2nd-and-14 for a huge conversion. The Ravens then began to mix the run and work the middle of the field as wide receiver Anquan Boldin pulled in a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter to put the Ravens ahead of the Patriots 21 to 13.
The Ravens had a definite plan to give up on the dink-and-dunk of the first half and start heaving the ball deep against the Patriots’ depleted secondary until it was softened up. Whether this would have been effective had the Patriots defense had cornerback Aqib Talib is debatable, but the Ravens made adjustments, the Patriots defense got tired, and the Patriots offense remained stagnant throughout the entire third quarter as opportunity slipped from their grasp.
The Patriots first drive of the fourth quarter ended in catastrophe as running back Stevan Ridley was knocked out on a hit by Ravens defensive back and Patriots killer Bernard Pollard causing a fumble covered by Baltimore. A quick strike by Ravens quarterback to wide receiver Torrey Smith moved the Ravens into scoring territory in a hurry before finding wide receiver Anquan Boldin again down the middle of the field for another touchdown to make it 21 unanswered points for Baltimore in 10 minutes as the Ravens extended the lead to 28 to 13.
The Patriots again stalled out after getting to the 20 and not converting a 4th-and 4, which seemed to effectively end the game. Oddly enough, Baltimore came out throwing and worked less than a minute off the clock. It seemed to give the Patriots another chance, and when Wes Welker caught a 36 yard catch and run, the Patriots were in position to make it a game. However, the next play resulted in a tipped pass and an interception by Ravens linebacker Ellerbee. This time, the Ravens made the right call and powered up to run out the clock to almost the 2 minute warning and effectively ended the game. The Patriots mounted a “too little, too late” drive to nowhere ending in another interception.
It was odd to see the Patriots be out-coached, make mental mistakes, not cause turnovers and instead turn the ball over in crunch time. The Baltimore Ravens looked like the best team as their defense confounded the Patriots throughout the game. After struggling early, the Ravens were the squad making the adjustments and making the big plays down the field and coming up with critical conversions. The Ravens outplayed the Patriots from player 1 through 53 and on the sidelines and in the coaches box. They were more physical on both sides of the ball and the Patriots were soundly beaten.