For a big chunk of Sunday’s AFC championship game, the New England Patriots dominated the 60 yards between their 20-yard line and the 20-yard line of the Ravens.
The Patriots refused to let the Ravens flip field position in the first half and spent much of it entrenched in Ravens territory. But when the Patriots crossed that 20-yard line, the Ravens, as they have done all season, protected the red zone with a barricade of bodies.
The Patriots scored just one touchdown on three red-zone trips in the first half and took a 13-7 lead into halftime. The Ravens, on the other hand, were money inside the red zone, scoring touchdowns in all four of their trips, including three in the second half, to pull away from the Patriots and advance to the Super Bowl.
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It will be those lost trips deep inside Baltimore territory that Tom Brady and the Patriots lament all offseason.
“We talked about scoring in the red area and getting touchdowns,” Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker told The Boston Herald after the game. “We didn’t do that in the first half, and it cost us.”
The Patriots ranked first in the NFL in red-zone offense during the regular season, scoring touchdowns at a ridiculous rate of 70 percent. Their offense, with quick throws to shifty receivers who find nooks and crannies in most defenses and a solid running game, had made the most of their time in cramped quarters. But the Ravens gave them very little space and time on Sunday, forcing the Patriots to leave points on the field.
On their first red-zone drive, Brady didn’t attempt a pass inside the 20-yard line and the Ravens held the Patriots to a field goal after three running plays, including a stop of Stevan Ridley for no gain on 3rd and 2.
On their second such drive, Brady completed two of three throws inside the red zone for just 2 yards, but one was a touchdown pass to Welker, who got open due to miscommunication in the Ravens secondary.
On their third such drive, Brady couldn’t find an open receiver and fled the pocket, only to slide down -- with one spike rising suspiciously high on safety Ed Reed -- after 3 yards. The Patriots then bungled their clock management and couldn’t get another play off before kicking the short field goal that gave them a 13-7 lead.
In the second half, the Ravens showed the Patriots what a successful red-zone offense looked like. Relying mostly on the passing game, quarterback Joe Flacco picked apart the Patriots defense, almost always looking to wide receiver Anquan Boldin or tight end Dennis Pitta, who did most of their damage in the slot. Flacco tossed a touchdown to Pitta in the third quarter and two to Boldin in the fourth to take a decisive 28-13 lead.
Flacco completed seven of his eight pass attempts inside the red zone, including a touchdown drive in the second quarter that was capped off by a 2-yard run by Ray Rice, for 44 yards and three touchdown passes.
Brady, meanwhile, was 2-for-6 inside the red zone for 2 yards after he threw three incompletions in the fourth quarter as the Patriots turned the ball over on downs. Later in the quarter, Brady moved the Patriots to the 22-yard line, just outside the red area, but he was picked off in the end zone by cornerback Cary Williams.
Sunday’s 28-13 victory was the latest and greatest example of the bend-but-don’t-break Ravens, who ranked second in the NFL in red-zone defense during the regular season. If they hadn’t held firm in the early going, who knows how the game would have turned out? But they frustrated and flustered Brady and the Patriots inside their 20-yard line, and that’s one of the major reasons why the Ravens are headed to the Super Bowl.
“For our team, our defense to come out and play the way we did, [in the] first half giving up field goals,” Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said after the victory. “And we knew red zone was going to be big going against this team. Because they’re big in the red zone and their fast-paced offense is everything, so we really had to settle ourselves down. Again, I tip my hat off to my defense, the way we came out and never wavered.”