FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Baltimore Ravens did everything imaginable to beat the New England Patriots on Sunday in the AFC title game. They got a fine game, a better-than-Tom Brady game, out of Joe Flacco, their under-fire quarterback. They extracted three turnovers from the Patriots — normally very stingy in that department — and had only one giveaway. They made the Pats settle for field goals three times when touchdowns might have changed the complexion of things.
And as the final seconds wound down, they were at the New England 14, trailing 23-20, with a chance to win in regulation. It was all going according to plan.
Alas, in football, it’s often the unimaginable that trips you up, and so it was for the Ravens. First, Lee Evans had the potential game-winning touchdown pass knocked out of his hands in the end zone by the Patriots‘ Sterling Moore. So close. Then, two plays later, Billy Cundiff yanked a 32-yard field goal try to the left — a kick, in his words, “I’ve kicked a thousand times in my career” — to send the Pats to the Super Bowl and the Ravens back to Baltimore with a gaping wound.
(Nurse! Give me suction!)
After all, how often do you lose a playoff game in which Brady, the greatest quarterback of his generation, posts a 57.5 rating — with two interceptions and no TD throws — and announces on national television afterward: “I sucked pretty bad today, but our defense saved us”?
But then, that’s how it’s always been with Ray Lewis and Co. They make grown men weep and Hall of Fame quarterbacks — Brady on this day, Peyton Manning on another five years earlier — look like second-stringers. Only against Baltimore would Brady miss a wide-open Rob Gronkowski for what would have been an easy score early in the game. Call it Ravens-on-the-brain. Sure, he completed 22 of 36 for 236 yards, but he never did look entirely settled back there, did he — even though his offensive line gave up just one sack.
An ongoing debate in the NFL this season, as teams such as Green Bay, New Orleans and New England have piled up the points, has been: Does defense really matter anymore? And if so, how much? Enough to carry to you to a championship? Or is that unrealistic in this era of four- and five-wideout circuses? Is the object more to just slow the other club down a bit?
As the Ravens reminded everybody Sunday, there’s still a little room for ‘D’ in this league — plenty of room, perhaps, if you have a kicker who can make the must-haves. Who’s to say what would have happened had the teams gone to overtime, particularly given how unpredictable the second half was? Would the Ravens have pried loose one last turnover? Would the Patriots finally have popped a big play? (Their longest was 23 yards.) Would Stephen Gostkowski have become the New Vinatieri and booted the game-winner for the Pats? Would Flacco have finished off a coming-of-age performance with a length-of-the-field drive?
Lewis and his mates will spend the offseason tormenting themselves with those thoughts. The Canton-bound linebacker already has a Super Bowl ring, of course, but at 36-going-on-37 he won’t have many more shots at another — shots better than this one, at least. This time, the Ravens didn’t have to fight the wild card odds; they won their division, had the benefit of a first-round bye and were matched in the AFC title game with a club, the Patriots, they waxed in the playoffs two years ago.
Still, Lewis said, “I’ve been in this business too long for this to be the toughest loss ever. Is it a tough loss? Absolutely. … [But] every time you go through something like this, it has to drive you.I am hungry again; I am thirsty again. Is this my last [game] as a Raven? Absolutely not. Let me answer that question before somebody asks me that question.”
There’s no reason he should be retiring, not after racking up a team-high dozen tackles Sunday and being his usual disruptive self. John Harbaugh talked about being “proud of this defense,” and rightly so. The unit refused to let the the high-scoring Patriots turn the game into a track meet — and positioned the Ravens to pull off the upset.
“Our defensive coordinator [Chuck Pagano] put together a heck of a plan,” defensive end Cory Redding said. “We disguised stuff, showing [Brady] one thing, then we would give him another. We did everything we could to get three-and-outs and get good pressure when we could.”
Some things can’t be accounted for, though. If your kicker is going to miss a 32-yarder with 11 seconds left, he’s going to miss a 32-yarder with 11 seconds left. Harbaugh may, in the days ahead, wish it hadn’t come down to that, wish he’d gone for it on fourth-and-1 at the New England 3 in the second quarter instead of opting for a 20-yard field goal that tied the game 3-3. Had the Ravens punched it in there, it might have changed the mathematics of the ending.
Another thing that can’t totally be accounted for is Brady being Brady when his team absolutely, positively needs him to be. That time came early in the final quarter, after a Flacco touchdown pass to erstwhile Maryland Terp Torrey Smith and a Cundiff field goal — following a fumble by Patriots water bug Danny Woodhead on a kickoff — suddenly put Baltimore in front for the first time 20-16.
All Brady did at that point was take New England 63 yards in 11 plays to regain the lead, 23-20, on a quarterback sneak. And amazingly, despite interceptions by both sides in the remaining minutes — and assorted other hysteria — the score stayed the same. The Patriots were headed to Indianapolis for the Super Bowl, and the Ravens were left to wonder: Why not us?