Every season since the Patriots acquired Randy Moss in 2007 it seems like it's the same old story with the Patriots. The Patriots went from a gritty, grind-em-out, physical team to a team that doesn't know how to respond when they get smacked in the mouth. I wrote back in October about how this team has grown soft. I wrote that this has become a team that, while entertaining to watch during the regular season, has lost the toughness to win Super Bowls.
This was evidenced last Sunday night in Foxboro. This game was not decided by a miraculous catch by David Tyree like Super Bowl XLII. This game did not require a drop-in-the-bucket pass along the sideline like Eli Manning executed to Mario Manningham in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVI. No, sirree. This Patriots team was methodically beat down by a hungrier team.
It was a formula the Patriots used to win their first Super Bowl over a decade ago against the heavily-favorite St. Louis Rams. It was a formula they used to consistently beat the high-powered Indianapolis Colts early in Brady's career. Punish receivers coming over the middle. Smack their quarterbacks in the mouth and put them on the ground. Get in their heads. Intimidate them.
The Baltimore Ravens turned the tables on the Patriots just like the New York Giants have done before them. The blueprint is there to beat Brady, Belichick, and the Patriots. The Giants and the Ravens are two of the few teams that have the personnel, and the coaching, to execute it.
Don't believe me that the Ravens intimidated the Patriots? I present you with evidence.
Exhibit A: Wes Welker dropping a pass early in the third quarter on third down which killed a promising drive. The Patriots were up, 13-7, and had a 3rd-and-7 at the Baltimore 34-yard line. Unlike last year's Super Bowl, this time there was no debate whether it was a drop by Welker or if it was a bad pass by Brady. Welker dropped a perfect pass from Tom Brady at the 24-yard line which would have given the Patriots a first down. It would also have positioned the Patriots to open up a two-score lead which would have changed the complexion of the game.
Just a minute earlier, Welker gained 24 yards on a catch but paid the price by being leveled on a hit to the head by Ravens' safety Bernard Pollard. The Ravens received a 15-yard penalty on the play, but the shot may have paid longer-term, bigger dividends.
Exhibit B: Tom Brady, at the end of the first half, tried to evade a hit by Ed Reed by sliding cleats-up. I'm sorry, but it was a wimpy move. To add insult to injury-- or I should more accurately say, insult to insult-- Brady went on to completely mismanage the clock following the play. It is just something so atypical of a Brady and Belichick-led team.
The Patriots had a 10-7 lead with the ball on the Ravens' 10-yard line with 26 seconds left. Brady's first mistake was trying to run with the ball as opposed to, simply, throwing it away. His second mistake was not calling a timeout immediately after his girly slide. He was rattled. Instead, the clock ran down to four seconds before Brady called a timeout. The Patriots settled for a field goal.
I'm not even going to get into the Brady run in which he ran into an official in the middle of the field. It may be the only time I would consider using the names Tom Brady and Mark Sanchez in the same sentence.
Why do the Patriots play an aggressive style during the regular season and a passive one in the playoffs? Since 2007, the Patriots have played an up-tempo, no-huddle offense during the regular season. Yet, in both Super Bowls against the Giants, the playoff loss to the Jets in 2011, and now this week, where was the no-huddle offense? Coming into the game against the Ravens, many believed the Ravens' older veterans would have a hard time keeping up with the non-stop Patriots' offensive attack. Well, the Patriots did them a favor by slowing it down for them.
The Patriots had five 3rd-and-2 situations in the first quarter. They converted only two. For the game, they had were in 3rd-and-under-4 yard situations eleven times and converted less than half of them. During the regular season, the Patriots have always been efficient converting in these situations. Bubble screen. Quick slant to Welker. Hurry to the line of scrimmage and QB sneak it or hand it off to a running back for a quick hitter. There was always a play they could count on to convert. Not so on Sunday. They were drive-killers. Every 3rd-and-short was a struggle. The Patriots easily could have been up 13-0, 10-0, or even 9-0 after the first quarter. How demoralized would the Ravens have been if they fell behind bigger sooner?
Twice the Patriots punted with the ball inside of the Ravens 35-yard line. Twice! Belichick just does not do that during the regular season. This is the guy that went for it on 4th-and-2 with a lead at his own 28-yard line against the Colts a few years ago. Belichick was quoted earlier in the week as saying you "don't win a war digging a foxhole and sitting in it. You've got to go out there and attack." Looks like Belichick brought his shovel and left his weapons at home on Sunday.
The Patriots showed some positive results by increasing their blitzing late in the regular season. Where was that on Sunday? Joe Flacco had so much time to throw that he could have sat in a rocking chair, sipped on a drink with an umbrella in it, and checked Twitter on his phone to see what people were saying about him... all before deciding to throw the ball. On some replays in the second half, I swear I could see Flacco actually smiling while he stood in the pocket scanning the field. Smiling!
The Patriots passed up a chance to sign Anquan Boldin a couple of years ago. Instead, the Patriots' fans have complained for years about the Patriots lack of a big wide receiver who is a red-zone threat and who is not afraid to go over the middle. The player those fans are describing is Boldin. And Boldin put the nails in the Patriots coffin with two touchdown grabs in the second half. Both TD catches were mere lob passes in which the 6-foot-1 Boldin out-jumped and brushed off Patriots defenders like they were merely gnats.
Entering the off-season, it will be all the same conversations. Patriots need a pass-rusher. Patriots need a hard-hitting safety. Patriots need a big receiver. But the one thing the Patriots need most is something they can't draft, sign, or trade for... it is heart.