Despite having one of the worst secondaries in the NFL, the Ravens came close to advancing to the AFC Championship game. But in the end Saturday, they couldn't overcome their Achilles' heel.
The Ravens twice had 14-point leads in the game, but they couldn't stop New England quarterback Tom Brady, who completed 33 of 50 passes for 367 yards and three touchdowns. Another 51 yards and a touchdown came through the air on a gadget play.
When the game was on the line, Brady engineered a 10-play, 74-yard touchdown drive and capped it off with a 23-yard strike to wide receiver Brandon LaFell. He beat cornerback Rashaan Melvin down the left sideline with 5:13 remaining.
The Ravens had tried to get through the season masquerading their problems on the back end of the defense with a ferocious pass rush led by outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. Suggs turned in a solid game but Dumervil was nowhere to be found.
The Patriots did exactly what the San Diego Chargers did to the Ravens several weeks ago. They nullified the pass rush with short passes, and beat up on Ravens cornerbacks. The Patriots didn't even try to run the ball.
On the last drive, Brady carved up the Ravens secondary with short passes. There was an 8-yarder to LaFell, and two catches of 8 and 6 yards by receiver Julian Edelman. Brady had completions of 4, 6, and 9 before hitting LaFell with the game-winner.
The Ravens had their cornerbacks playing off the line of scrimmage most of the game because they didn't want to give up big plays, and that's what the Patriots wanted.
If you choose that strategy, a team has to be able to tackle after the receptions. The Ravens failed miserably there.
Second-year safety Matt Elam was horrible in trying to tackle in the open field. Cornerback Lardarius Webb never jumped a route. Melvin was the Ravens' leading tackler with 11, but that was more of an indictment of how he got picked on instead of how he played.
If you wanted to see some poor technique all you had to do was watch Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski catch a 5-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter.
Gronkowski lined up on the outside and was covered by safety Will Hill. On the snap, Gronkowski got inside for a short slant and touchdown reception. On the snap of the ball, Hill never put his hands on Gronkowski.
How can the Ravens not jam the best tight end on the planet in that situation?
This game started to unwind for the Ravens in the second half. As long as quarterback Joe Flacco was hot and running back Justin Forsett kept pounding away at the Patriots, the Ravens were in control. But there is a weakness in January Joe's game. When he gets hit, he gets rattled. Most quarterbacks do, but Flacco can check out of a game for a half.
During this postseason the offense had to carry the Ravens and 31 points is good enough to win most games. But when a team gets to this point in the playoffs, weaknesses are exposed — such as the Ravens' secondary play.
You might be able to hide them against quarterbacks named Ryan Tannehill and Blake Bortles, and maybe escape a great one like Ben Roethlisbger, but it's hard in a three-games series against a Roethlisberger, Brady and Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck.
Looking back, the Ravens might have handled their problems in the secondary differently, but it was impossible to predict the large number of injuries suffered by this group. General manager Ozzie Newsome might have made some moves late in training camp when the Ravens were without Jimmy Smith and Webb because of injuries, but it's hard to find a shutdown cornerback.
Keeping it all in perspective, the Ravens were fortunate to get this far in the postseason, especially after having to back into the playoffs.
But when it ended, it was going to end like it did Saturday night. It's a quarterback-driven league and all of the teams in the final eight had good quarterbacks. But most of them have at least one great cornerback, too.
In fact, the Patriots had two. The Ravens had none and no playmaker at either of the safety positions, either.