Monday, January 21, 2013

Patriots Dropped By Ravens, 28-13

The Patriots playoff run ended abruptly (don't they all) with a 28-13 loss at Gillette Stadium last night.  The loss sent the Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl, the Patriots to do some soul-searching and preparation for the off-season, and their fans to wonder how it went so wrong when it looked all set up for them.  There was a lot of what Terrell Suggs called "arrogance" among fans -- many predictions of double-digit victory and rematches with the 49ers.  But all the talk was for naught.

Last November, the Patriots traded for corner Aqib Talib, and much of the local media wondered: "Can one player make that much difference for this awful secondary?"  If the last three quarters of the AFC Championship Game are any indication. the answer is an obvious, "Yes!"  Talib was on the field for the first two drives on Sunday, and the Ravens were scoreless before he left with an injury.  After that, Baltimore spent the entire second half exploiting matchups with nickel back Marquice Cole, and they outscored the Patriots 28-10 the rest of the way.

Ravens QB Joe Flacco took a few series to figure it out, and he spent one series targeting Kyle Arrington.  But after Arrington almost intercepted two passes, you could literally see Flacco come up under center and look for Cole, and then throw to the receiver he was covering.  And just like that, the Patriots defense that was so well-suited to stopping long pass plays, was suddenly very vulnerable to them.  The last three-quarters of the game looked a lot like the Patriots early season losses, unable to stop the long pass, and when they went with more DBs, unable to stop the run.  A lose-lose.

However, on this count, the biggest fault of all rests with the New England coaching staff.  Once the situation was obvious to everyone watching at home and in the stands, it was incumbent upon the coaches to do something to rectify it.  My advice would have been to move Devin McCourty to cornerback and take your chances with Tavon Wilson at safety.  Not a great option, but once Cole was beaten for the fifth time in a row, it was time to try something new.  But no such adjustment was made, and the Ravens looked unstoppable for most of the second half.

And to those defensive problems, add in a ton of missed offensive opportunities in the 30 minutes.  Here is how their first half drives went:
  1. Welker dropped a perfect pass on third-and-two, and they punted
  2. Brady called a no-huddle run that was stuffed on third-and-two, and they kicked a field goal
  3. Dropped pass by Lloyd on third-and-nine, and they punted from the Baltimore 35
  4. Third-and-two (again!) missed pass to Lloyd, and they punted from the Baltimore 45
  5. Touchdown drive
  6. Blown clock management and a field goal instead of a TD from the Baltimore 10
Six drives got 13 points, but it should have been at minimum 19, and could have been 27.  No team scores every time, but bad plays on third down and lack of guts to go for it on fourth down kept the game too close at 13-7.  They went for most every fourth down inside the opponent 40 all year, so why the passivity in Ravens territory this time?  And maybe Gisele was right -- her husband can't throw *and* catch the ball.  Not that Brady was great in this game, but in the first half he made enough plays to hold more than a six-point lead, if his receivers could hold onto the ball.

Even with all that, with the problems on defense and the issues on offense, the Patriots still could have won the game, obviously, leading at the half.  But while Baltimore was exploiting the Patriots defense, the Patriots offense sputtered, and finally they began to turn the ball over.  They punted from the Baltimore 34 yard line on their first drive, and then went 3-and-out on their second one -- shades of the first half.

And then, on a promising drive to start the fourth quarter, down by only eight points, Stevan Ridley took a vicious hit and fumbled.  The Ravens promptly abused the Patriots defense again, to post a 28-13 lead.  However, those were the last points they would score, and with 11:13 left in the game, a two-score lead wasn't insurmountable.  But the last three drives went: turned over on downs, tipped-ball interception, and interception.  Ball game.

That, my friends is how you lose a playoff game.  Didn't go for it on offense when they'd done it all year.  No pressure on QB Joe Flacco, and when your secondary sustained injuries, he toasted them for multiple touchdowns.  Meanwhile, your offense didn't make hay in the first half and turned the ball over in the second half.

Here is a quick list of who did well in the game:

1.  Brandon Lloyd and Aaron Hernandez were rock solid, with only 1 or 2 drops and lots of important catches.  Combined, they notched 16 receptions for 153 yards.

2.  Punter Zoltan Mesko did a great job pinning the Ravens back, even if the team should have called on him two or three fewer times and gone for it on fourth down instead.

3.  Rookie Alfonzo Dennard and oft-criticized Kyle Arrington were the best secondary players on the day, but that mostly casts an unflattering light on the rest of the secondary.

4.  Linebacker Brandon Spikes did a great job against the run, especially given that the defensive line didn't do its usual stellar job (mostly just held serve).

5.  Rob Ninkovich had another "johnny on the spot" game, finishing with 8 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 QB hits, and doing a nice job holding the edge against the run.

As for who didn't do well:

1.  Tom Brady didn't control the game with audibles as he had all year.  The first interception wasn't on him, and the second one was in desperation time, so his QB rating was worse than his performance.  But too many bad plays called in third-and-short situations, and not decisive enough when he ran out of the pocket.

2.  The coaches weren't aggressive enough, didn't make good adjustments (shown by a scoreless second half), blew the end-of-half situation, and didn't do enough to help their defensive backfield when Talib went out of the game.  The one good thing -- they obviously found something with the inside run in the second half.  But even including that, a poor performance.

3.  The linebackers in pass coverage, just didn't get the job done.

4.  The offensive line was mostly just okay.  Some decent holes but not consistent enough in the running or passing games.

5.  Wes Welker led the team in pass receptions and yards, made some catches after bone-crushing hits, and did good work on punt returns.  But his two drops -- both on third down in Ravens territory -- they were killers.

6.  Not that it was his fault, but corner Marquice Cole had an awful game.

So where does that leave us?  There literally is no tomorrow this season, so for a change, the Patriots Pro Bowl players will participate n the game next week.  The team has to figure out whether or not to bring back Talib (likely they will), and they should do their best to bring in another veteran to solidify that part of their defense.  And as always, they should consider all possible candidates for defensive coordinator, because that situation has not worked out very well lately.

Statistical Oddity of the Week:  In the first 17 games this year, Mesko punted from inside the opponent 40 yard-line only 9% of the time (6 of 65).  On Sunday, it was 40% (2 of 5).  (Trivia question: in which game did he punt three times from inside the opponent's 40 yard-line -- answer below.)

Bonus Statistical Oddity:  Tom Brady won his first 67 home games when he held the lead at the half.  Yesterday was the first loss of his career in that situation.  (I read this one on several sites.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Missed opportunities always come back to haunt you; the Pats lost this game in the first half."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  13-5 & 1-1!
PPS.  Mesko punted from inside the Miami 40 yard-line in the season finale -- a 28-0 blowout win.

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