BALTIMORE – Looks like balmy weather in Baltimore suits the Patriots better than the same in Miami.
Most experts had the Patriots losing their game Sunday against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday. After the heartbreaking loss to the Dolphins on the road last week, going into this game, it was a preconceived notion that the Ravens would combine their hatred for the Patriots, them playing at home and the dilapidated state of the Patriots into an easy win. Instead, the Patriots took advantage of a lame Joe Flacco, early Ravens mistakes and a sharp first half offense by the Patriots and Tom Brady and walked off with a huge 41-7 victory. Two late turnovers for touchdowns made this game a rout, when in fact the game was close and tight until the final offensive possession for the Patriots.
Going into the game, the Buffalo Bills gave the Patriots an early Christmas present by whitewashing the Miami Dolphins in western New York, 19-0. The Dolphin loss gave the AFC East title to the Patriots. The victory by the Patriots enabled them to be able to clinch a first round bye with a win at home next week against Buffalo. With the Ravens' loss, the Cincinnati Bengals clinch the AFC North, though the Bengals were rooting for Baltimore to win and give Cincinnati the inside track to the two seed and set up a division championship game with Baltimore next week at Paul Brown Stadium.
Instead, the Patriots set themselves up nicely. So far, the Dolphin loss last week only imperils their chances to get the top seed. The Patriots scored touchdowns on two of their first three drives, ran up a 20-0 third quarter lead, sat on that lead for a while and surrendered one Ravens touchdown, before finally locking up the game in the end with a stop on fourth down (their third such stop of the game), a clock-killing touchdown drive, then two rather kooky turnovers which resulted in touchdowns to make the game a Patriot rout.
The most important element of this game turned out to be Flacco's left knee. Injured last week against the Lions, Flacco sustained a strained ACL but was able to play with a brace. Still, he was never able to truly get into a rhythm until the fourth quarter, the Patriots put constant pressure on him and sacked him four times, Logan Ryan picked him off twice, and Aqib Talib did a nice job on Torrey Smith for much of the game.
There were other skirmishes that the Patriots were able to win. The Patriot offensive line protected Brady well and generated a decent run attack (142 team rushing yards, 4.2 yards per carry). Ray Rice was held to only 40 yards rushing and a 3.6 yards per carry average. Three times the Ravens went for it on fourth down, and the Patriots stopped them each time.
The game wasn't decided until late in the fourth quarter, when the Ravens were finally able to dent the Patriot defense. The Ravens' defense had stiffened in the second half, with three of the first five Patriot drives ending in three-and-outs. Bill Belichick seemed to be managing the game to not lose instead of to win, giving up a lot on defense between the 20s but trying to keep the Ravens out of the end zone, while Brady played ultra-conservative and did not turn the ball over.
Justin Tucker, who kicked six field goals last week at Detroit including a game-winning 61-yard field goal, yanked a 37-yard field goal wide left with 14:24 left in the fourth quarter. Brady responded by hitting Julian Edelman on a right sideline pass for 15 yards and Aaron Dobson with a leaping grab down the middle for 21 yards to the Baltimore 37. But the drive stalled there, and instead of trying a 53-yard field goal (Stephen Gostkowski was perfect on two field goal attempts, both from beyond 40 yards), Belichick punted and Ryan Allen (four of seven punts inside the 20) did his job and pinned the Ravens back at the ten-yard line.
However, the game seemed to tilt towards the Ravens on this drive and portended a potential rally down only three touchdowns with plenty of time left. Flacco led the Ravens on a nine-play, 90-yard touchdown drive. It began with a sack of Flacco at the three-yard line by Sealver Siliga. Two plays later, a false start against Michael Oher was changed to a neutral zone infraction by Chandler Jones. Flacco was then able to get out of danger with a 15-yard pass to Dennis Pitta who beat Tavon Wilson on a slant route. Four plays later, Flacco found Pitta on the right sideline for 15 yards which was called out of bounds but reversed on replay. With the ball at the Patriot 25, Flacco tried to hit Smith in the end zone but Steve Gregory was called for interference. Two plays later Flacco sneaked it in from one yard out.
Needing to kill clock with 9:21 left, on first down Josh McDaniels inexplicably called for a floater along the right sideline to Edelman. The pass misfired and the clock stopped. Three plays later, the Patriots punted after killing off only 1:25 of game time.
After Flacco hit Smith for 17 yards to get the Ravens to their own 48, the Patriots finally put the clamps on any sort of Baltimore rally. Flacco threw four straight incompletions, the last of which sailed over Pitta's head out of bounds on the right side with Donta Hightower in close pursuit of Flacco. The Patriots took over on the Baltimore 48.
With 6:37 left in the game, the Patriots finally did what they should have done on the previous drive. The Patriots ripped off nine running plays, five to Stevan Ridley and four to LeGarrette Blount. Blount covered the last seven yards and made it 27-7 with just over two minutes left. School was out at this time, and it was fun to watch the Patriots push the Ravens' defense around for a change.
Tyrod Taylor came into play quarterback at this time. On the first play, with Taylor lined up in the gun, the ball was snapped to his right and Taylor whiffed on the pass. The ball rolled into the end zone and Chandler Jones scooped up the ball to make it 34-7. The Ravens had still another drive, but on the sixth play with 54 seconds left, Taylor tried to hit Marlon Brown on the right sideline and Wilson picked him off. He was able to tightrope the left sideline and take it 74 yards for the touchdown to finally complete the scoring.
Brady finished 14 of 26 passing for 172 yards and an 87.3 passer rating. He threw one touchdown pass to Shane Vereen (who left the game later with a groin pull). Flacco had 260 yards on 22 of 38 passing for and a 56.9 rating.
The Patriots now await the Bills at home. A win and they get a first round bye. Four teams are vying for the six seed, all are alive and none of them control their own destiny. But the Patriot mandate is clear. Win and they once again get the following week off before hosting a Divisional Playoff Game.
All of a sudden, the holidays for Patriot Nation seem warm and happy.