Early confusion –** The Patriots defense has enjoyed a terrific season but it did not get off to a great start in the playoffs. The Ravens scored touchdowns on their first two drives, but what made the play more troubling was some apparent confusion on the part of New England. There appeared to be some question as to which players should be in the lineup, and as the Ravens broke the huddle the Patriots were often moving around the formation. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones were switching sides on occasion, which was by design, but the zone coverages appeared to be out of synch and the run defense couldn't handle Justin Forsett. It seemed Baltimore was a step ahead in terms of personnel and two long touchdown drives that were accomplished with relative ease were the result.
Tempo control – As expected the Patriots tried to use some quick tempo, no huddle offense in the first half but did so with mixed results. On the first series New England picked up a quick first down but then went three-and-out from there while operating out of the no huddle. On their third series they tried to push the tempo again and this time it worked – at least initially. Tom Brady quickly got the ball out of his hand operating exclusively out of the shotgun with short, precise passes to Julian Edelman, Shane Vereen and Brandon LaFell. But as the Patriots marched near Baltimore's red zone, things stalled. Back to back sacks by Timmy Jernigan and a split one between Terrell Suggs and Pernell McPhee moved the ball back to the Ravens 34, and a delay of game penalty forced a Ryan Allen punt from there. The half ended with a traditional two-minute drive but Brady was picked off by Daryl Smith and the Ravens eventually took the lead on an Owen Daniels touchdown.
The New England Patriots take on the Baltimore Ravens in a Divisional Playoff game at Gillette Stadium on Saturday, January 10, 2015.
Seeing red –** The Ravens entered the game with the second-ranked red zone defense, and last week against Pittsburgh made life miserable on the Steelers inside the 20. The Patriots turned the tables on the visitors and went 4-for-5 inside the red zone with the only stop coming early on when Brady was sacked on consecutive plays to push New England out of field goal range. Otherwise the Patriots executed perfectly by continuing to use their quick, short throws to negate the constant pressure Baltimore was applying. Brady read a Ravens blitz and hit Gronkowski on a quick slant in front of Will Hill for one touchdown and he found LaFell for the eventual game-winner in the fourth quarter. The Patriots performance in the money zone was a key to the victory.
Eligibility issues – Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels unveiled a few wrinkles in the second half and they seemed to jumpstart the team's comeback. Trailing 28-14, the Patriots used Shane Vereen and Michael Hoomanawanui as extra offensive linemen and caught the Ravens off guard. With Vereen reporting as an ineligible receiver, Hoomanawanui was left uncovered three times for easy catches that moved the Patriots into the red zone. That drive ended in a touchdown. On the next series, Brady tossed a backward pass to Edelman, who then fired a 51-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Danny Amendola for the tying score. Both drives left Baltimore looking clueless and completely changed the momentum.
On the run – After finishing the season with several strong efforts against the run, the Patriots defense was bullied by Baltimore's offensive line. Forsett carved through the Patriots front seven consistently and moved the pile on a number of occasions. He was particularly effective on the Ravens go-ahead drive early in the fourth quarter when he turned in straight efficient runs to set up a first-and-goal from the Patriots 9. Forsett finished with 129 yards on 24 carries for an impressive 5.4-yard average. The Ravens play up front was especially impressive considering rookie backup guard John Urschel was thrust into action at right guard while Marshal Yanda moved to tackle due to the injury to starting left tackle Eugene Monroe, who was replaced by rookie James Hurst. Despite all the movement, the Ravens consistently moved the ball on the ground against what had been a very stout defensive front.
Forgotten moment – Early on it looked like so many of the other Ravens-Patriots playoff games with Baltimore coming out and establishing control. The Ravens took an early 14-0 lead and appeared to be headed toward getting the ball back with that lead intact. The Patriots did nothing on their first possession and faced a third-and-eight from deep in their own end on the second, and it looked like Baltimore was going to get another stop when McPhee chipped Rob Gronkowski at the line and knocked the tight end off his route. Brady was looking for his tight end all the way and was rewarded when the Ravens failed to pick him up after McPhee's chip and Gronkowski picked up 16 yards to move the chains. The Patriots eventually marched to a touchdown to climb back into the game when it appeared they could get blown out early.
Flag day – There was a line of thought throughout this flag-filled season that once the postseason arrived there would be a far less of a yellow presence. Based on wild card weekend and again on Saturday that won't be the case. Penalties are still being called at an alarming rate and some of them really seemed to be misplaced as each team was called for taunting/unsportsmanlike conduct penalties during the game. The Ravens, in fact, were called for three – two by Torrey Smith and one on coach John Harbaugh. There also seemed to be a couple of occasions where penalties seemed to be warranted – such as an incomplete pass to Gronkowski early in the third quarter that appeared to be pass interference. Each team was flagged seven times with the Patriots resulting in 60 yards and the Ravens 65. Too much air time for referee Bill Vinovich and his crew.
Wide open spaces – The Patriots secondary struggled to contain Steve Smith and Torrey Smith early in the game but caught a break when each was banged up. Torrey Smith went to the locker room briefly in the first quarter and was evaluated for a concussion and Steve Smith remained on the field for several minutes on the final play of the first quarter. Both receivers returned from their injuries but neither was anywhere near as effective the rest of the way. Torrey Smith consistently ran past Brandon Browner, including on a huge 35-yard catch on fourth-and-one that set up a third-quarter touchdown. He finished with three catches for 62 yards. Steve Smith had three catches for 44 yards and a touchdown but did nothing after his injury.
Extra points – The Patriots advanced to their fourth straight AFC Championship Game. Only Oakland (1973-77) has a longer steak. … By rallying from a 14-point deficit the Patriots earned their largest postseason comeback in franchise history. The previous best was 11 points in 2006 against San Diego. … The win was the Patriots 100th at Gillette Stadium including the playoffs. New England is 100-19 (.840) since the stadium opened in 2002. … The team also improved to 16-4 at home in the playoffs, trailing only Seattle (.818) for the best postseason winning percentage. … Bill Belichick notched his 20th career postseason win, tying him with Tom Landry for the most all time. … Brady threw three touchdown passes, the last of which was the 46th of his playoff career, moving him past Joe Montana for the most in NFL history. By throwing for 367 yards he also moved past Peyton Manning into the top spot with 6,791 passing yards in the postseason. … Edelman's 51-yard touchdown pass to Amendola was the Patriots first scoring pass by a non-quarterback since 2004 when Adam Vinatieri hit Troy Brown in St. Louis.