Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston talks about the Ravens 30-23 loss to the New England Patriots. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
First, the Ravens' normally reliable special teams faltered. Then their supposedly rejuvenated offense started on what would become a litany of mistakes. Finally, their top-ranked defense began to get dissected by Tom Brady.
The Ravens' postseason fate wasn't going to be decided Monday night at Gillette Stadium. Their Christmas Day game against the Pittsburgh Steelers still looms as more important. At the very least, though, their widely anticipated matchup against the New England Patriots was going to help answer the question of how good these Ravens really are after they had won four of their past five games.
By early in the second quarter, the answer was pretty obvious: nowhere near good enough. The Ravens mounted a third-quarter comeback, aided by two Patriots turnovers. However, the AFC-leading Patriots hung on for a 30-23 victory in front of a national television audience on Monday night.
"I don't know what a shot in the mouth feels like, but I can almost guarantee you this can be kind of similar," Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We didn't come here for no moral victory, like, 'Oh we played with these guys.' We spotted them 16, we fought our way back in and we gave up a 79-yarder. You can't do that. You can't make mistakes with [Brady]. You can't because he's going to make you pay."
Brady responded to 17 unanswered points by hitting Chris Hogan for a 79-yard touchdown pass on the first play from scrimmage after Justin Tucker had cut the Patriots' lead to 23-20 with 6:35 to play.
Safety Eric Weddle took the blame for the play after he cheated over to cover Julian Edelman. Hogan easily beat safety Matt Elam, who was in the game after injuries to cornerbacks Jimmy Smith (ankle) and Jerraud Powers (concussion).
Brady, who had thrown 12 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions in 10 career meetings with the Ravens, lit them up for 406 passing yards and three touchdown passes.
"They played winning football an they made the plays they needed to make," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "They got off to a good start [and] that put us in a hole. Their defense was very tough throughout the course of the game."
With the loss — their eighth in nine career regular-season meetings versus New England — the Ravens are now a game behind the first-place Steelers in the AFC North. They also are currently out of the wild-card spots, currently held by the Oakland Raiders (10-3) and the Denver Broncos (8-5)
Remember that Ravens team that pummeled the surging Miami Dolphins, 38-6, last week, and that quarterback that threw four touchdown passes and moved the offense effortlessly down the field? Neither showed up at Gillette Stadium, nor did the defense that was first in the league in fewest yards allowed and tied for second in the league in fewest points allowed.
The Patriots led 16-0 less than six minutes into the second quarter, and 23-3 early in the third quarter when Brady hit his tight end Martellus Bennett on a 19-yard touchdown pass. Bennett outdueled Ravens linebacker Zachary Orr in the end zone and the rout appeared to be on.
However, Baltimore native and former Gilman standout Cyrus Jones muffed a punt, leading to Joe Flacco's 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Darren Waller. On the ensuing kickoff, Matthew Slater was drilled by Patrick Onwuasor and Kyle Juszczyk, and he fumbled the ball.
The Ravens recovered, and Flacco hit rookie running back Kenneth Dixon, who wasn't covered out of the backfield, for an 8-yard touchdown pass. The Ravens offense, which did nothing for the first 21/2 quarters aside from setting up Justin Tucker's 50-yard field goal just before halftime, suddenly had two touchdowns in a span of 1:26 after the Patriots' two turnovers.
The Ravens defense then forced a punt, but the offense couldn't capitalize. Twice, they drove deep into Patriots' territory, but had to settle for Tucker field goals.
"We just didn't finish drives," Flacco said. "I think early on we moved the ball, we got the first 30 yards, we got moving, but then we just stalled out and that probably hurt us in the long run."
The Ravens and Patriots were matching up for the first time in 23 months. Their last meeting came in the AFC divisional round following the 2014 regular season. The Patriots prevailed, 35-31, leaving the Ravens to lament two blown 14-point leads and New England's use of certain formations that they believed were deceptive.
Harbaugh expressed his displeasure about the formations after the game, prompting Brady to suggest the Ravens "study the rule book and figure it out." In the days that followed, the Ravens' role in Deflategate was also scrutinized, with reports that Ravens kicking consultant Randy Brown and associate head coach Jerry Rosburg each contacted Indianapolis Colts coaches to warn them about the condition of the kicking balls. The Colts played the Patriots the following week at Gillette Stadium in the AFC championship game.
The Ravens denied having a role in initiating Deflategate, but the bad blood between the two teams seemed to linger. Any past games and incidents, however, were downplayed by both sides leading up to the game.
When the game began, all the fireworks were provided early by the Patriots. They got on the board first when big nose tackle Malcolm Brown dropped Dixon for a safety. The Ravens had the ball on their own 1-yard line after Devin Hester Sr. opted not to catch a Ryan Allen punt, allowing the ball to bounce behind him.
The Ravens' bid to take the lead was thwarted when Justin Tucker's 34-yard field-goal attempt was blocked by Shea McClellin, who timed the snap perfectly and leaped over the interior of the offensive line. The block ended Tucker's streak at 35 consecutive field-goal makes, dating back to last year.
New England got the ball back and drove 74 yards on 10 plays, with LeGarrette Blount scoring on a 1-yard touchdown run to give the home team a 9-0 lead. On the play before the touchdown, Ravens top cornerback Jimmy Smith went down with a potentially significant ankle injury while making a tackle on rookie Malcolm Mitchell just outside the goal line. His absence would be felt throughout.
Things got worse before they got better for the Ravens. On the Patriots' next drive, Brady continued to find open receivers across the field. He finalized an eight-play, 89-yard drive by hitting Mitchell for a 6-yard touchdown.
Only an end zone interception by Weddle, and Tucker's 50-yard field goal late in the second quarter, prevented the visitors from being hopelessly behind. As it was, they trailed 16-3.
On offense, the Ravens ran the ball just four times in the first half compared to 26 passing attempts. On defense, the Ravens allowed the Patriots to gain 289 yards in the first half. They came into the night, allowing just 296.1 yards per game.
Things got better for the Ravens in the second half, but only temporarily.