The Baltimore Ravens shut down the New England Patriots’ receivers in Sunday’s AFC Championship, rattled Tom Brady and held the Patriots to their fewest points since October. And they still didn’t win.
The Patriots beat the Ravens, 23-20, advancing to their fifth Super Bowl of the new millennium when Ravens place-kicker Billy Cundiff badly missed a game-tying 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds left. The Patriots will face the New York Giants in Indianapolis in two weeks.
The AFC Championship was the last test before the final. Who’s ready, and who’ll be pulling an all-nighter? Here’s the penultimate report card of the season.
Brady’s successes Sunday came on seven, eight, nine-yard passes – the bit-by-bit passing attack that’s won three Super Bowls. Brady only got into trouble when he got greedy and tried for more too quickly. Given the ball following a Brandon Spikes interception, Brady could have slowly marched the Patriots 50 yards, scored a touchdown and probably clinched the game. Instead he tried an unconvincing play-action bomb to Matthew Slater, who’s caught one pass this season. The Ravens sniffed it out, sent two deep and picked him off.
Every so often, Brady forgets to use common sense when selecting targets. Against a good pass-rush, Brady barely completed 60 percent of his passes, throwing for just 239 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. In typically gritty fashion, he did rush for a touchdown on fourth down in the fourth, putting the Patriots ahead for good.
Brady won’t have to be perfect to out-score the Giants in two weeks. He just can’t get lost inside his own head as much as he did Sunday.
Running backs: A-
BenJarvus Green-Ellis led all running backs with 68 yards, a touchdown and a 4.5 yards-per-carry average. He made the most noise on a drive early in the second quarter in which he picked up 24 yards on the first two plays. He also picked up nine by drawing a face mask penalty in the red zone, then scored from seven yards out on the very next play to put the Patriots up 10-3.
Green-Ellis’ running kept the Ravens’ defense slightly more honest up front. As much as Green-Ellis helped the team, Danny Woodhead nearly killed the team by fumbling the kickoff following a Ravens third-quarter touchdown. Luckily, the defense held the Ravens to a field goal, keeping it a one-score game.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B+
The Ravens don’t just rush the QB well; they also play terrific in the secondary. The Patriots tried as best they could to get open, but they just couldn’t. Even Rob Gronkowski couldn’t wreak the havoc he normally does, catching just five balls for 87 yards. Brady missed him on his best chance to get into the end zone early in the game.
Aaron Hernandez, looking more or less recovered from his concussion, led the team with seven receptions. That’s seven catches or more in five of the last seven games. Hernandez should head to Indianapolis healthy and confident, and that’s bad news for the Giants’ secondary, which even at its best can’t do what the Ravens’ can.
Offensive Line: A
The offensive line allowed just one sack, two tackles behind the line and three quarterback hits. They also committed no penalties and opened up enough holes at the line for the Patriots to rush for 96 yards. Baltimore entered Sunday’s game with the AFC’s best front-seven, and New England’s offensive line didn’t flinch.
The passing game didn’t always work, but that wasn’t because Brady had to scramble to avoid constant pressure. If the line protects Brady that well in the Super Bowl, the Patriots will take home their fourth Lombardi Trophy.
Defensive Line: A-
Vince Wilfork by himself gets an “A,” finishing the game with a sack and three tackles behind the line. He also got a hand on Joe Flacco on fourth-and-6 from the New England 33, spinning him and forcing an errant pass.
The offensive line finished with two sacks (the other another crusher from Mark Anderson) and four QB hits. They also held NFL total-yardage leader Ray Rice to just 67 rushing yards and 3.2 yards per carry. More pressure on the QB is always desirable, but this line is at least the potentially good enough to win another Super Bowl. At this point, that might be all Pats fans can ask.
The linebackers let tight end Dennis Pitta into the end zone for a second-quarter touchdown, but otherwise held him and fellow tight end Ed Dickson to 5-of-9 receiving for just 64 yards. Spikes also picked off Flacco midway through the fourth, preserving for the moment a three-point lead.
Spikes’ return has definitely rejuvenated the defense, giving the front seven another two-way player who can both rush the passer and drop into coverage. Considering Giants tight end Jake Ballard‘s effect on the first Patriots-Giants game this season, Spikes could be a difference-maker in Indianapolis.
Defensive Backs: B+
Although the defense allowed 306 receiving yards and two touchdowns, they didn’t look out of position on many plays. Flacco relied more and more on timing routes as the game progressed, throwing just as wide receivers broke for the ball. Usually the Patriots’ corners trailed by just a step or two, and you can’t avoid that split-second difference in reactions without risking your man beating you deep. Had Flacco’s passes been just a bit less accurate, his total yardage would likely have plummeted. Flacco played out his mind, and that really can’t be blamed on the secondary.
The glaring exception, of course, was Sterling Moore‘s missed tackle on third-and-4 from the New England 33. Flacco threw a sideline pass to Torrey Smith, and Moore whiffed on a tackle that would have stopped Smith behind the line of scrimmage. Instead, Smith ran almost untouched 29 yards into the end zone for a 17-16 lead.
Still, Moore made up for the play in the final seconds of the game, stripping Lee Evans in the end zone on second down and then deflecting a pass to Pitta on third down to set up Cundiff’s missed field goal.
Special Teams: A
Cundiff’s miss showed that executing field goals – even short-range ones – is never as easy as it looks. That Stephen Gostkowski made all three in a game won by three points earns this unit an “A.” The return teams also didn’t commit a single penalty, and despite Woodhead’s above-criticized fumble, he still out-gained Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski by almost 14 yards per return. Woodhead also made up for the fumble on his next return, reaching the 37 and shortening the field for what proved to be the game-winning drive.
Stephen Tyler’s National Anthem: F
Didn’t we learn in the 2004 World Series that this was a bad idea?