BALTIMORE – The first half of New England's 2019 schedule gave them many favorable matchups, which they exploited, for the most part, to become one of just two remaining teams (San Fran the other) with a spotless record at the halfway point of the season.
The second half of the campaign, though, promised to be more difficult with tougher opponents. Cleveland gave the Patriots a taste of competition for a while last week at Gillette, but in Baltimore Sunday night, the Ravens proved an even more determined foe, particularly after having come off their bye week.
At the end of an efficient game-opening drive by the Ravens, New England's league-leading defense appeared to hold Baltimore to three points. However, Shilique Calhoun committed a neutral zone infraction as Ravens kicker Justin Tucker lined up for a 24-yard field goal attempt. That gave Baltimore a 1st-and-goal at the 3.
QB Lamar Jackson executed a textbook bootleg, but needed help from his running back, who blocked an oncoming LB Jamie Collins, to waltz untouched to the end zone. Tucker's ensuing PAT gave Baltimore a 7-0 lead.
The Ravens' D then forced a Patriots three-and-out punt to get the ball back at their own 25, where they started their first possession.
During that second drive, Patriots defenders came inches away from intercepting deflected Jackson passes that went straight up in the air on two separate occasions, but both balls dropped to the ground. Tucker wound up tacking on three more points with a 39-yard boot.
It was Jackson's slight-of-hand with the read option that seemed to give New England problems throughout the first quarter. Meanwhile, Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense couldn't find any rhythm during their two first-quarter drives.
Baltimore's ground game continued to plague the Patriots at the start of the second quarter. It took the Ravens only three plays to cover 77 yards – 53 of which came on one Mark Ingram run – and reach the black-painted end zone.
New England reclaimed the ball trailing 17-0 and once again couldn't put together a drive.
"We got it going a little bit, but just didn't hold that momentum," said RB James White. "We have to give credit to those [Ravens]. They played a good football game. We didn't play our best from the start of the game and it hurt us."
"It's definitely different to play from behind. We didn't play the game we wanted to… they outplayed us," wide receiver Julian Edelman declared afterward.
To the rescue, at least for the time being, came special teams ace Justin Bethel. The former Raven, claimed by New England last month, recovered a muffed punt by former Patriot Cyrus Jones at the Baltimore 20. Four plays later, Brady connected with Mohamed Sanu for the receiver's first scoring catch since coming to New England in October.
"They played a little more zone [defense] than we expected," Sanu said later, "but we were able to adjust and try to change some things up. We've got to make the plays in order to get the win, and we didn't do [enough]."
The turnover did seem to spark the defense at the time, which made Baltimore punt for the first time on the ensuing possession. However, a bizarre intentional grounding penalty against Brady and holding call against left tackle Marshall Newhouse on consecutive plays thwarted any realistic possibility of the Patriots adding to their point total on that drive.
They ended up having to punt yet again, but the D came through once more. LB Kyle Van Noy forced Ingram to fumble at the Ravens' 19, which DT Lawrence Guy recovered. Kicker Nick Folk, signed just this past week, converted a 22-yard field goal to trim the Baltimore lead to just a touchdown.
Another forced punt by the Patriots' D gave the ball back to Brady and Co. with about two minutes to go in the half. A big-gain catch by White brought the ball down inside the Ravens' 10-yard line with seconds to play. Three plays later, White came within a yard of taking the ball into the end zone, but he stumbled along the way as he dashed behind good blocking and was touched by a Raven defender before he crawled over the goal line. New England had to settle for three more points from Folk, but went into intermission down just four points, 17-13.
Because the Patriots won the opening coin toss and elected to defer, they received the ball to start the third quarter. New England was putting together a solid drive when the momentum swiftly swung back in Baltimore's direction. Edelman was wrestled to the ground after a catch, but not before LB Patrick Onwuasor stripped him of the football. CB Marlon Humphrey picked it up and raced 70 untouched yards for a touchdown.
"I feel like I let my team down, but you've got to move on," Edelman told reporters in the post-game locker room. "It put us in a hole. You can't turn the ball over against a team like that, when they can hold the ball that long [on offense]."
New England did put it behind them initially by immediately marching back down the field, seemingly at will, to erase the Edelman miscue. White finished off an 11-play, 75-yard drive with a 1-yard TD run.
"Julian's a warrior. I'd go to war with him 11 out of 10 times," WR Phillip Dorsett asserted. "Things happen. It's football. Obviously, we didn't play well enough to win.
"We got it going, got some confidence going. We were definitely building toward something… But it wasn't good enough. They played better than us."
Jackson and the Ravens certainly didn't back down. To keep their next drive moving, Baltimore went for it on 4th-and-4 from the Patriots' 38 and managed to get the extra set of downs when Jackson found an open receiver along the sideline. The QB then made a few electrifying scrambles before tossing a touchdown pass to TE Nick Boyle. Tucker's unsuccessful extra point attempt meant Baltimore had a 10-point advantage rather than 11.
Still, the 30 points they accrued by the start of the fourth quarter were by far the most any foe has managed against New England.
Brady had the O on the march, it appeared, until he fired a deep pass intended for Sanu that was easily intercepted by safety Earl Thomas. Jackson guided his troops all the way to New England's end zone. He capped it off himself with a hard-nosed 1-yard run for the score that gave back to the Ravens the 17-point margin they originally jumped out to in this game.
"It just wasn't our day," Edelman admitted. "You've got to tip your hat to the Baltimore Ravens. They played a good game."
The previously unbeaten Patriots now head home and into their bye week with plenty to lament about this first loss of the season, and some extra time to get ready for their next game – another tough one on the road at Philadelphia in two weeks.
"Obviously, we didn't play our best tonight," White acknowledged. "We'll make the corrections, come back from the bye week ready to go."
"It's tough, but it gives you time to look at things from the first half of the season, and especially this game," RB Rex Burkhead declared. "I know the character of the guys on this team. I know we're going to fight to fix our mistakes, come back strong. When we come back from the bye week, hopefully we've made those corrections and are a better team for it. There's still a lot of football left to be played."
"We can go two ways from here," Edelman remarked. "We can either learn from it and get better and move on, or you can go the other way. I have faith that we're going to learn from it, get back to where we need to be and go on from there."