On November 25, the Patriots met the Eagles for what was, at the time, the largest point spread in professional football in a game that didn’t involve an expansion team. With McNabb out, the bookies laid 23.5 points on the game, expecting another blowout. An onslaught of blitzes and three competitive quarters later, Brady looked rattled. The Patriots, taking grief for running up the score in the 4th in all other games, had to scramble to pull out a win.
All right. So the Pats had been shown to be vulnerable. But Belichick was a smart man; he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. Especially not against Baltimore.
Let’s review the “perfect storm” of factors going into last night’s Ravens / Patriots matchup – a 20-point spread, a game the Patriots should have walked through, a mere speed bump on their road to an undefeated season.
Here are the Keys to the Game:
- The Ravens are a hard team to beat at home. They have the best record for wins on home turf – 45-16, a rank they share with New England and Indianapolis. The Ravens have historically been a D-heavy team, and the one thing defenses thrive on is noise. And at every home game, no matter how trivial, M&T Bank Stadium packs to capacity with screaming passionate Ravens fans – men and women who had their prime football-watching years stolen in a Mayflower moving van. Do not tread lightly.
- The Ravens had their eye on . Ray Lewis, heart of the Ravens and the core of their smash-mouth defense, bit back tears as a memorial banner was unfurled for the recently slain Redskins safety. He and Ed Reed both went to “The U”(niversity of Miami), Taylor’s alma mater. Lewis and Reed shared a tense pep talk on the sidelines before kickoff. “This ain’t a game,” Ray said. “This is family. This is for you, Sean.”
- At 11-0, the Patriots had locked a playoff berth. Home field advantage throughout the postseason was in their reach. So what were they playing for – an undefeated record that’ll only be interesting to discuss ten years from now, and that barely? The Ravens, on the other hand, were playing for that most elusive of trophies: pride. You do not walk into Baltimore’s house and give up 20 points – not if you want to walk out again.
So what happened?
The Ravens sacked Brady, legendary for his coolness in the pocket, three times – twice consecutively in the 3rd quarter. Boller played the game of his life, whether firing long bombs to Devard Darling (who?) or handing the ball off every time to Willis McGahee. The Ravens’ secondary grounded Brady’s passing game, giving him a worse game than Boller (18/38 vs. 15/23, same # TDs, same # picks). Sure, the Patriots could still drive down the field and score – some of the time – but they couldn’t stop the Ravens from scoring. For once, in the history of the franchise, the Ravens’ offense was leading the charge.
So what happened? Panic under pressure.
Boller turned over a costly pick to James Sanders on a long ball, ending what could have been the drive that put the game away. As the Patriots marched back down the field, firing on all cylinders, they drove right into the end zone. Ravens’ linebacker Bart Scott drew two consecutive unsportsmanlike flags – one for tossing his helmet, one for throwing the ensuing flag into the end zone (Scott’s thought: “he’s gotta run out of flags sometime!”). This cost the Ravens 30 yards on the kick return. Considering that Boller’s last pass, with eight seconds on the clock, landed in Mark Clayton’s hands on the New England 3, another few yards could have made all the difference.
What has this game taught us?
First: even the 11-1 Patriots would have been the best team in football, by leaps and bounds. There’s no disputing that.
Second: under pressure – and I cannot imagine a more perfect pressure cooker than two passionate teams with their reputations on the line on Monday night – the cooler team will prevail. Baltimore has a history of drawing costly penalties at the worst times (Bart Scott’s a habitual offender). New England kept their head in the game, ran their routes efficiently, and marched to the end zone.
But third and finally: nothing is written. No man’s fate is ordained. People have grown excited over the possibility of an undefeated Patriots season, but it hasn’t happened yet. The Patriots still need to face the Steelers. The Dolphins, winless this year, managed to upset the Patriots in 2004 (December 20th) and in 2006 (January 1st). And a perfect season means nothing in postseason play.
Tom Brady hasn’t made it to Damascus yet, folks.