HE HAD NEVER LOST A game when leading at halftime at home. Tom Brady was 67-0 in such situations with the Patriots and, really, there was little reason to believe the quarterback who has won more playoff games than any in NFL history wasn’t going to be 68-0.
The Baltimore Ravens’ defense had been on the field for 174 plays through two playoff victories, and Brady had that defense out there for 45 more plays Sunday night in the first half of the AFC Championship Game. True, the Patriots led by six points heading into the locker room, but the Ravens’ defense was supposed to be worn out. The Ravens’ defense was supposed to be old. The Ravens ‘offense wasn’t supposed to be able to score enough to keep up with Brady.
All of New England and half the football world turned out for Ray Lewis’ retirement party. If Lewis and the Ravens defense weren’t going to drop of exhaustion during the second half, certainly they were going down with their AARP cards in their hip pads …
… and then the Patriots never scored again.
Final score: Ravens 28, Patriots 13.
Stunning. Stunning. Stunning.
“They outplayed us and outcoached us tonight,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who had been 72-1 with the Patriots when leading at halftime at home. “Nothing was good enough.”
“We just couldn’t make any critical plays,” Brady said.
There will be a Harbaugh family reunion in New Orleans, and the Patriots will not be there to join them on Bourbon Street. There will be a Har-bowl. Jim’s San Francisco 49ers will meet John’s Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. Sports reporters undoubtedly will be tracking the family genealogy back hundreds of years. Harbaugh. Harbaugh. Harbaugh. Ray Lewis. It will be a story line without the Patriots.
The 49ers were supposed to be there, but the Ravens were a 91/2 -point underdog. Not only did they cover, they emptied out most of Gillette Stadium minutes before the end of the game. And when it was over, there were at least 5,000 Ravens fans crowding near the field. A number of Ravens coaches and players walked over toward them and joined in the revelry.
“They’re a great football team,” Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. “The best team won tonight.”
On a night when Brady set the NFL record for postseason passing yards, throwing for 300 yards for the sixth time in the playoffs, he also threw two interceptions in the second half. Three turnovers, including a fumble by Stevan Ridley on a wicked hit by Bernard Pollard, left the Patriots hopeless, helpless and heading home. They were outscored 21-0 in the second half. Stunning.
Give it to the Ravens defense. They are tough. They are resilient. They are nasty.
Give it to the Ravens offense. When you start your five drives at the 13, 10, 8, 10 and 14, man, you are looking at some long, hard sledding. Their average drive start in the first half was their 11. Joe Flacco put together one 90-yard drive in the first half. It didn’t get much better in the third quarter, but the Ravens ran off an 87-yard touchdown drive to take a 14-13 lead. Flacco had three touchdown passes in the final 30 minutes. Flat out. He outplayed Brady when it mattered.
Did it hurt that Rob Gronkowski didn’t play because of a broken arm? Sure, but fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez had seven catches in the first half. Wes Welker had nearly 120 yards in receiving yardage.
“But they kept the pressure on,” Brady said. “And we didn’t stand up to the challenge.”
True enough. And Flacco, who has received more than his share of criticism in recent years, kept getting better as the game wore on. Rob Ninkovich got to Flacco once, but the Patriots never sustained a pass rush. He had time to think. He had time to throw.
A couple of injuries hurt, too, especially the one to cornerback Aqib Talib. Defensive tackle Kyle Love, who started next to Wilfork, left with a knee injury on the first drive, too.
The Patriots had been using Talib on the opponent’s top receiver and he had his sets clearly set on Anquan Boldin for this one. Boldin told reporters this past week, “We’ll win.” He didn’t open the game looking as if he was bent on proving it. Talib was all over him in coverage on an incompletion down the left sideline. And then on third down with 5:15 left in the first quarter, he broke up a Flacco pass intended for Boldin. Talib, however, immediately grabbed the back of his upper leg as if it were a hamstring injury. He was escorted to the locker room by the medical staff and word emerged he had suffered a thigh injury.
But there was Boldin in the second, catching two touchdown passes. One was over Devin McCourty. The other was against Marquice Cole.
The Ravens were tougher, mentally, physically, spiritually. They have played three playoff games at Gillette in the past four seasons. They have won two. They lost the third on a missed field goal at the end.
Boldin was right. The Ravens would win. And they would make history in doing it.
They beat Brady when he was up at halftime.