Three Thoughts: Brady leads Patriots past Ravens with second-half rally
The Ravens and Patriots combined for 66 points and eight touchdown passes (including one by a wide receiver) on Saturday. They also combined for three turnovers, and it was the final mistake that sealed the game's outcome.
After five-plus postseason appearances without an interception, Joe Flacco fired two in New England, the second coming in the end zone with just 1:39 left. With his team trailing by four, Flacco was looking for a go-ahead touchdown to Torrey Smith, who was streaking up the sideline. Instead, he found safety Duron Harmon.
The pick all but wrapped the Patriots' dramatic 35-31 win, one that will send the AFC title game through Foxboro next week.
"I didn't think we played as well as we would have liked," said New England quarterback Tom Brady, who finished with 367 yards, three touchdown passes and another score on the ground. "It took a lot of effort, took a lot of guys making a lot of good plays."
Three thoughts on the exciting game:
1. Brady took what the Ravens gave him, and then ...: Did the Ravens settle on soft coverage throughout much of the game because their pass rush was less dominant than it was last week? Or did the pass rush fail to replicate the success it had against Ben Roethlisberger because of the soft coverage?
Baltimore's chicken-egg argument is rather irrelevant overall, but for the most part Brady was plenty satisfied to take what was given to him in the passing game. With Baltimore opting for a bend-but-don't-break philosophy in coverage, Brady was able to negate the opposing pass rush with a plethora of quick tosses outside and to the seam. A matchup nightmare under any circumstances, tight end Rob Gronkowski was Brady's main focus, hauling in seven passes for 105 yards and a touchdown.
Of course, when the Ravens adjusted because they finally had their backs against the wall, clinging to a 31-28 lead in the fourth quarter, Brady beat them over the top. What turned out to be the game-winning touchdown pass came on a gorgeous Brady toss deep to Brandon LaFell, who raced past a struggling Rashaan Melvin to haul in the pass.
Before that deep ball, much of Brady's 367 yards had come from his running backs, tight ends and receivers enjoying huge cushions from the Ravens' defenders.
The Patriots had so much success with their short passing game that they bailed on their run game entirely, finishing with 14 yards on 13 carries, the fewest rushing yards ever by a winning team in the postseason.
There may not have been a desirable alternative for the Ravens -- more aggressive coverage could have left Baltimore exposed for more big plays like the LaFell bomb -- but Brady was able to find a groove far too easily.
2. Darrelle Revis and three empty drives nearly doomed New England: The Patriots utilized some fancy play-calling to pull themselves back from 14 points down in the second half, highlighted by a tackle-eligible completion to Michael Hoomanawanui and a touchdown pass from Julian Edelman to Danny Amendola. But they were forced to play from behind late because their star cornerback struggled and they left a bunch of points on the field.
First, Revis. The offseason pickup proved to be everything New England had hoped and more during the 2014 campaign, only to stumble through his worst game in some time Saturday. Steve Smith beat Revis for a touchdown early, then drew a critical (if controversial) pass interference call on the Patriots' top corner to set up another touchdown before halftime.
A third Revis miscue -- a defensive holding flag -- negated a Patriots fumble recovery inside the Baltimore five.
All of those errors would have been magnified further had New England not rallied. So, too, would have been the two punts Bill Belichick ordered from inside Baltimore's 40 (one coming after a Devin McCourty interception) and the awful interception fired by Tom Brady late in the second quarter. The Brady turnover coupled with the Revis interference call allowed Baltimore to grab a 21-14 halftime lead.
3. Gary Kubiak and his O-line go down swinging: Justin Forsett opened Baltimore's second scoring drive with back-to-back first-down runs, the path in front of him paved by a line that had the Patriots' defensive front on skates. Pick a matchup -- John Urschel on Vince Wilfork, James Hurst on Chandler Jones, etc. -- and the Ravens had the edge for much of the day.
Kubiak made sure it did not go to waste. Save for a baffling 3rd-and-1 end-around for wide receiver Michael Campanaro and the decisive Flacco interception, the Ravens' offensive coordinator was on point with just about everything he dialed up Saturday.
Proving toughest for the Patriots' defense to defend was a series of calls that featured either pre-snap motion or post-snap misdirection to free up a pass-catcher against the flow of play. Kamar Aiken scored the game's first touchdown, Campanaro picked up a solid gain and Kyle Juszczyk converted a 4th-and-1 off variations of that set.
While it was not enough in the end, Baltimore mostly won the battle up front. Kubiak, a candidate for at least one vacant head coaching job, deserves credit there.