The New England Patriots entered Sunday’s AFC Championship game as a heavy favorite but by the end of the game it was clear which team was crowned the AFC’s best team. The Baltimore Ravens defeated the New England Patriots in a monster 28-13 victory, sending the Ravens to the Super Bowl to square off against the San Francisco 49ers.
Defeated doesn’t come close to describe how badly of a beating Ray Lewis and company put on the Patriots. The Ravens defense was fast, physical and dominant while their offense compiled long drive after long drive and deteriorated New England’s defense. Most Patriot loses have me saying that New England lost the game, but this game just had a different feel to it, a feeling of defeat.
The Patriots played an impressive first half, taking a 13-7 lead into halftime but missed several opportunities including a complete debacle of clock management with just less than 20 seconds in the half. Tom Brady (29/54, 320 yards passing 1 TD/2 INT) drove New England down field in the final minutes of the half and scrambled inside the 10 yard line with 20 seconds remaining. With one timeout left and the clock still running, Brady forced the offense to the line of scrimmage to save the time out in which 14 seconds elapsed when Brady finally called the final time out. The Patriots sent out kicker Stephen Gostkowski who nailed a chip shot field goal to send the Patriots into the locker room up 6 points. Gillette stadium erupted as the ball went through the goal posts but deep down everyone knew 3 points were not enough in the situation.
In AFC Championship games, scoring chances come at a premium. Patriots’ fans have been spoiled by near expert quarterback play over the past decade and almost didn’t know how to react when QB Tom Brady mishandled such a big opportunity. As I sat in section 336, I knew that single play would mentally effect Brady and the offense for the remainder of the game and I was I had been wrong.
The second half was Raven highlight after Raven highlight as Baltimore QB Joe Flacco looked like a 3-time Super Bowl winner. Flacco and the Ravens offense attacked the Patriots who played scared and on their heels in the second half. With the Ravens offense playing well, the defense was equally up for the task. It was as if at half time the Ravens understood a trip to the Super Bowl went to the winner of this game while the Patriots forgot. Ray Lewis led the charge with 14 total tackles but it was the physical play of safety and Patriots Anti-Christ Bernard Pollard. I labeled Pollard as the X-Factor in this matchup due to his past play against New England and his powerful play continued Sunday night when he completely ended any comeback chance New England had when he knocked out Patriot RB Steven Ridley.
As the clock slowly ticked out and the game clock finally showed 0:00, the Patriots season was officially over. There will be no trip to New Orleans, only trips to the Pro Bowl. There will be no practice this week just regret and questioning. An off-season that once looked optimistic now will be filled with thoughts on how to get over the hump of not winning it all. The Patriots although disappointed are in a good position going forward. With a roster filled with depth, youth and talent there will be two major questions before next season starts.
1) What will happen with Wes Welker?
Clearly Welker loves being a Patriot and could easily be the definition of a New England Patriot. Hard working, smart and tough is exactly what Head Coach Bill Belichick wants in his players, but at what cost? Does Welker deserve a big, long-term contract? Most likely, he has been the most consistent component in New England’s offense over the past years besides Tom Brady. He is the perfect fit for this type of offense and probably made Tom Brady the QB he is today. With that said, Welker is a different type of receiver than the likes of Calvin Johnson. Should he get paid? Yes, but will he? Most likely not. I expect the Patriots to try and franchise Welker again, guaranteeing #83 another year with Brady and close to $12,000,000.
2) What to do with Aqib Talib?
It has been obvious that Talib was the difference maker in the second half for New England’s defense. He was the missing piece of the puzzle and with him in the game the puzzle was complete. Talib will be 27 years old next season and is a true #1 cornerback in the NFL but his troubled ways of his past will make it tough to give him a long term contract. People could compare Talib to Randy Moss, who while playing for a big contract excelled but once a contract was rewarded his play slowly decreased. Talib has taken full advantage of his second chance with the Patriots, something that could spark the talented CB to play to his potential. New England should sign the veteran in the range of 3-4 years and make him a cornerstone of this young, electric defense.
In the end New England had a very productive season but getting so close to the Super Bowl and not getting there will haunt fans and players the entire off-season. Thanks for a great season!