FOXBOROUGH – In a clear effort to gain the emotional advantage right from the start, New England trotted out Wes Welker.
Hobbled out, to be more precise. It was a portent of the Patriots impending doom.
They knew their injured wide receiver wouldn't be able to suit up for their Wild Card Playoff Game against the Baltimore Ravens, so they introduced Number 83 as the teams' honorary captain for the coin toss.
But the Ravens responded with an 83 of their own.
On the game's first play from scrimmage, from the Ravens' 17-yard line, Baltimore's Pro Bowl running back, Ray Rice, took a handoff from quarterback Joe Flacco, darted through a hole up the middle, cut to his left, and ran untouched to the New England end zone for an 83-yard touchdown.
The game was barely 20 seconds old and it was essentially over, via TKO.
From there on in the first quarter, the Ravens absolutely dominated the Patriots. Quarterback Tom Brady, Pro Bowl-bound himself, looked nothing like an all-star. He lost a fumble and threw two interceptions, which led to Baltimore's next 17 points. All before the first 15 minutes were completed.
"Yeah, we just put ourselves way behind the 8 ball," Brady told reporters afterward. "Just too many turnovers … it was just too tough to overcome.
"Playing the way we played today, we're not going to beat anybody, no less a good football team."
The Patriots came out flat, while the Ravens were feisty. The contrast couldn't have been more evident, even to many of the players.
"We never got anything going," linebacker Adalius Thomaslamented. "It's very disappointing. This was probably our worst game of the season."
"The way we played today is the worst we've played all year," nose tackle Vince Wilforkdeclared. "I thought we prepared well, but it didn't show. We got beat up. … We didn't even play like it was a playoff game. More like a preseason game.
"It's just a tough loss. It's not like they came out and did anything different. They did exactly what we thought they were going to do."
Which was run, run, run. The Ravens ran 52 times for 234 yards. Flacco threw just 10 times for 34 yards. That gave some of the Patriots just enough hope to fight on.
"Yeah, we were playing to the end. We're not going to quit," insisted rookie Julian Edelman, subbing for Welker at wide receiver. "Tom Brady told us not to quit, and that's what we tried not to do."
"I was encouraged throughout the whole game," added running back Kevin Faulk. "I was trying to get everybody going no matter what the score was, no matter how much time there was. There's always that hope."
"We still had a chance. You see comebacks all the time," observed Thomas. "There was a chance for us to make a great comeback, but we couldn't make the plays. Everything always swung back the other way. Anytime we made a play, they would make a play. The fans would cheer, then boo, and then cheer. It was up and down. We'd make good plays and then bad plays. We just played a bad game."
That was the general mood in the Patriots' post-game locker room: half the players said they felt hopeful, while the others conceded defeat from the beginning.
"We didn't come to play – point-blank. Never had a chance, from the first play to the last play. They came in and they wanted it more than us. It showed," said Wilfork.
"I hope not," Brady continued. "I didn't feel that way coming in. I wanted to win this game more than anything, and a lot of the guys on offense did, too."
"They wanted it more than we did today," linebacker Tully Banta-Cainasserted.
"I don't think so," countered cornerback Leigh Bodden. "In my heart, I wanted it as bad as anybody. I prepared all week to have a great game and was very focused and played hard. This was my first playoff game and I put it all on the line. And I hope my teammates did the same. For the most part, I think everybody did."
"Nobody played well enough for us to win," Faulk stated.
"This is not how I envisioned it – this team with a lot of talent, good coaching," Bodden remarked. "It kind of hurts to go home this early, when I know that we're better than we showed today."
"It's going to make for a long offseason," Brady concluded.