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The New England Patriots began their playoff run against the Baltimore Ravens Sunday afternoon in Foxboro. The Patriots had already defeated Baltimore once this season and were looking for a repeat performance. Unfortunately, the Ravens turned the tables on New England, scoring four times (three touchdowns plus a field goal) in the first quarter. One touchdown came on a Ray Rice 83-yard rush. It was the Ravens’ first play from scrimmage, and it was a sign of things to come. New England never recovered and wound up losing, 33-14.
Three factors contributed to New England’s offensive woes during this game. The first was their lack of a running game. The Patriots rushed for just 64 yards all game. Unable to run the ball in any meaningful way, New England was forced to go to its passing game almost exclusively. This led to the two other problems the offense suffered from. The Patriots front line could not protect Tom Brady (154 yards, 2 touchdown passes, a whopping 3 interceptions), as he was sacked three times, once leading to a fumble that Baltimore recovered.
Additionally, the Patriots’ wide receivers were constantly taking hits from the Ravens’ defense, never making serious plays after the catch. No one on the Patriots had a good day receiving: not the wide receivers, not the tight ends, and not the running backs. The Ravens’ gave up the short pass, then quickly swarmed the receivers and hit them…hard. The Patriots wide receivers were bruised and beaten by a more physical Ravens secondary. Combine all of this with the turnover problems the Patriots suffered from, and you have the makings of a difficult offensive game for New England.
The one thing the Patriots defense had done successfully all season was stop the run. Unfortunately, they could not do it again during their game Sunday afternoon. They gave up 234 yards on the ground despite allowing just over 110 yards a game during the regular season. Every time the Ravens rushed, their front line beat the Patriots’, forcing the tackles and linesmen backwards, making it easy for the Ravens’ backs to gain almost half the needed yardage on every rush (4.5 yards per carry average). This led to numerous third-and-shot situations, as opposed to the Patriots, who were usually in third-and-long situations.
On third down, the Patriots just couldn’t get stops, giving up 10 conversions while just gaining 3 themselves. While they only gave up six rushing touchdowns all season, on Sunday they gave up four, including two to game MVP Ray Rice, who ran for 159 yards. The Pats couldn’t stop Rice or any of the other Baltimore backs, and it cost them the game. The Ravens rarely went to the pass, not really needing to, so the Pats’ success against the pass Sunday afternoon is kind of an empty stat.
This past season could best be described as a work in progress. The young New England defense needed an entire season to learn how to play defense together in the NFL. Tom Brady needed a season to get himself physically and mentally back into the swing of things after missing the entire 2008 season. The offensive line needed a season to learn how to protect Tom Brady. Add to that the sheer number of injuries sustained by various Patriots this season and you have a season of “almost.”
Next season the Patriots should return healthier and more experienced. They will be a far superior team next year, better able to defend, protect the QB, and play on the road. But, for now we’re left with the sour taste of a season plagued by inconsistency and frustration.