The snow is still settling on the Patriots sudden and disappointing end to the 2012 season. New England's offseason came sooner than many expected, as Sunday's 28-13 defeat at the hands of the underdog Ravens has left many wondering what the future holds for Bill Belichick's roster.
There were plenty of reasons that the Patriots are officially kicking off the offseason this week rather than preparing for another trip to the Super Bowl. Tom Brady wasn't at his best. With Rob Gronkowski watching from a luxury box, New England couldn't make enough key plays in the passing game. With Aqib Talib and Chandler Jones watching from the sidelines the Patriots pass defense couldn't make enough key plays to slow Joe Flacco and the Baltimore aerial attack.
The Patriots struggled in the red zone and were surprisingly shut out in the second half of the AFC title game. A team that was second in the NFL in takeaways couldn't force the Ravens into a single turnover.
As is so often the case the reasons for the defeat – from poor coaching to a lack of execution and everything in between – were many.
Many critical onlookers tried to once again pin the loss, inexplicably from this viewpoint, on one Wes Welker third-down drop. Disregard the fact that he was one of the few Patriots who seemed to show up on Sunday actually ready to battle it out in a physical dogfight.
Arguably the biggest reason for the Patriots loss came on the biggest hit of a day filled with plenty of potential knockout shots.
Early in the fourth quarter New England trailed 21-13 following a Flacco 3-yard touchdown pass to Aquan Boldin. After a short Devin McCourty kickoff return got the Patriots started at their own 16, New England began to put a drive together. A couple Stevan Ridley runs totaled 11 yards before Brady hit Brandon Lloyd for 12 to put the Patriots to the 39-yard line.
The next snap saw Ridley take the handoff and run right for an 8-yard gain to keep things churning … except the drive and the game was about to come to a seemingly sudden finish. Infamous Patriots killer and Ravens safety Bernard Pollard came up to meet Ridley after the nice run. Both players lowered their helmets leading to a huge collision, one that the back got the worst end of. Ridley was seemingly knocked unconscious and lost the ball just before his limp and contorted body hit the Gillette Stadium turf.
While Ridley was laying motionless on the field and being attended to by trainers, Arthur Jones was digging his way through the bottom of the pile to come away with the fumble recovery for the Ravens at the Patriots 47-yard line.
Not only did the huge hit force a turnover and end a potential Patriots scoring drive, but it set up visitors for a drive of their own. Four plays later Flacco found Boldin for the touchdown again, this time from 11 yards out to pull out to the 15-point lead at 28-13 with just more than 11 minutes to play.
Interestingly a guy who was questioned for his ball security over his first two NFL seasons nearly held onto the ball even while seemingly falling unconscious to the turf. Had Ridley's butt hit the ground a millisecond earlier the Patriots would have maintained possession, but it did not. While it really did come down to a matter of fractions of a second and fraction of an inch, review clearly showed that Ridley lost control before he landed and the Ravens got the turnover on the biggest play of the game.
Had the Patriots maintained possession and continued to move with the efficiency they were to that point on the drive, New England likely would have put some points on the board. Maybe it would have even been a tie ballgame. Then maybe Brady wouldn't have been as pressed to make plays happen down a pair of scores and wouldn't have turned the ball over twice in the final quarter.
Football is a physical game, especially in the postseason. That was on full display in this latest battle between the Ravens and Patriots. It was also on full display in the meeting between Ridley and Pollard with the game very much in question.
It's difficult to say that a full season of 18 games and endless plays boils down to any single event. There is so much more to it than that. But on Sunday night in Foxborough one of the basic plays at the core of the game football, a massive collision between two talented athletes, left the Patriots literally and figuratively knocked out while the Ravens rolled to victory and a spot in the Super Bowl in New Orleans.
The blow was a painful one to swallow, both for Ridley and all fans of Patriots Nation. It brought the season to an end, and earned itself a second look as the subject of this week's final installment of Take Two-sday!