BALTIMORE – In the end, it comes down to the players.
Players like the Ravens' Torrey Smith. Sixteen hours before kickoff, his younger brother died after slamming his motorcycle into a utility pole in rural Virginia. Smith was roused from sleep in the middle of the night, raced home to be with his family, then returned to Baltimore to have one of the games of his nascent NFL career.
If players like Smith can make the plays they need to make at the right times, they'll determine who wins or loses a contest, not the folks tasked with officiating it.
On this night in Baltimore, however, it was hard not to admit that the men in the striped shirts had far too much of an impact on the final result.
The game's final stat sheet showed that the Patriots and Ravens combined for 24 accepted penalties. That number was even greater when you count the penalties that were declined. Effectively, over the course of the 60-minute game, that amounted to a flag being thrown literally every other minute.
Many of the calls were so mystifying that the M&T Bank Stadium crowd, at one particularly frustrating point in the second half, began a remarkably synchronized chorus of profanity that … well… let's just say it rhymed with "pull split."
Both teams were affected by the questionable calls from the game's replacement officials (the league is still in a contract dispute with its regular officials).
There seemed to be an inordinate amount of defensive holding penalties called, for instance, and a two-yard pass interference infraction. In many cases, television replays showed that the offending player hadn't ever grabbed hold of the opposing player's uniform.
Then, of course, there was the game-deciding play itself – Baltimore's last-second field goal from 27 yards out. The referees called it good, giving the Ravens the slimmest of margins of victory, 31-30. But again, replays showed that the spinning ball might actually have traveled directly over the right goal post. It certainly was close enough that it should have been given a second look by the replay booth upstairs, particularly considering it was a scoring play to end the game.
It wasn't, though.
Defensive tackle/co-captain Vince Wilfork was incensed. On the field, he removed his helmet and barked at the officials standing under the uprights who'd ruled the kick good. Head coach Bill Belichick attempted to slow down an official who was racing off the field to the locker room to try to obtain an explanation, but to no avail. The official ignored Belichick and kept on running.
In New England's post-game locker room, it was difficult to find any player who was willing to point a finger at the officials. Those who spoke to reporters on the record placed all the blame for the loss squarely on themselves.
"Everything was just all about us," insisted wide receiver Deion Branch. "[Baltimore] did a great job of executing. This is all about us. You know, missed block here, missed read, route wasn't deep enough – that stuff is on us. [The Ravens] weren't doing anything we weren't expecting. It's just all about executing.
"They took advantage of the opportunities. We left some plays on the field. They have a great team, great defense. We just have to correct some of the mistakes we messed up on.
"They made more plays than us," added tight end Rob Gronkowski, "and we just have to finish. You have to play according to the game, be ready for whatever the situation is. There are a lot of time-outs in the NFL, a lot of stop in play. You have to be able to get the rhythm flowing whenever – if it's after a flag, a time out. Just have to execute at all times."
There certainly was frustration felt by the players. Many took to their various social media platforms to vent in the immediate aftermath of the hard-fought defeat. Most, however, chose to take the high road.
"We didn't execute well enough. We just have to play for 60 minutes and make plays at the end of the game," cornerback/co-captain Devin McCourty maintained. "It starts with myself individually. Just have to get things done."
McCourty might have reason to gripe about the officiating – he was indicted a couple of times – but he chose not to, instead focusing on aspects of the game, like his dropped interceptions, that may have tipped the balance in New England's favor.
"Disappointing. Disappointing," McCourty emphasized. "I have to make that play. That's a play I can make. I just have to play better. We just have to adjust. We can't complain about [officiating. The game is what it is. We have to adjust to the flow of the game."
"We just wish we took advantage of the opportunity when we had the ball to seal the game," Branch lamented. "Our defense played great all game. Unfortunately, some of the calls… we may not agree with them, but it is what it is. That's been going on in the entire league. We just have to go out and take care of what we can and take it out of the refs' hands.
"This isn't going to be the first game that this has happened. I've been in games in the past, yeah, but it happens on both sides of the ball. There were some calls for them they didn't like and some calls for us we didn't like."
Branch may be right, of course. In the end, it should come down to the players.
Unfortunately, this latest battle between the Patriots and Ravens won't be remembered for how valiantly the players fought, or how inspirational Torrey Smith's 127-yard, two-touchdown performance was for Baltimore just hours after his brother's death.
No, it will be remembered for how badly the game was officiated.