By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots (15-3) defeated the Baltimore Ravens (13-5) in the AFC Championship game 23-20 yesterday as Billy Cundiff hooked a field goal with just 11 seconds remaining with a chance to send the game into overtime.
It was an entertaining hard-fought, very evenly played game yesterday. But the interesting thing about the win as this wasn’t about Tom Brady or Rob Gronkowski, this was a team victory. One of the aspects of the Patriots run of dominance during the past eleven years was always that the team was always better than the sum of their individual parts. They always hung together and found a way to win playing the ultimate team game.
Yesterday was the first time in a long time they had that kind of feeling. On a day where Brady wasn’t at his sharpest (by a long shot), the rest of the team stepped up and played hard for 60 minutes.
Interesting in that many in the Boston media scene this morning were harping on how the missed kick could have “sunk the Patriots”, I always thought FGs were three points. But whatever, they will continue to say what they want the bottom line is the Patriots won the game and are on their way to Indy to play in the Super Bowl.
A few things from this game stood out and I’ve put together what I believe are the Four Things to Take Away from this game:
The Patriots Defense Stepped Up- The most common refrain we’ve all heard and said ourselves this season was, “can this defense win a game in January when the offense is off its game and scores less than 30?”
The answer is yes and they proved that yesterday. The defensive game plan by Bill Belichick was to take away Ray Rice and they accomplished that extremely well yesterday. Rice came into the game generating 48% of the Ravens offense. The Patriots limited Rice and forced Joe Flacco to beat them.
While Flacco had a very solid game and put up good numbers, the bottom line is he only put up 20 points and the Ravens lost. There aren’t many games where you will beat New England scoring just 20 points. After the Brady touchdown the Patriots led by three points with nearly 12 minutes to go in the game. The Ravens scored zero points in crunch time and you have to give this much maligned defense a lot of credit. That and much was made of the Ravens red-zone defense (well deserved), but the New England red zone defense yesterday was better holding Baltimore to 1 TD in four trips (25%).
The Patriots two best players on the field yesterday were Vince Wilfork and Brandon Spikes. When was the last time in a Patriots victory were the two best players on the field for them was from the defensive side of the ball? With that in mind….
Vince Wilfork was Immense- And we don’t mean just size wise, Wilfork was dominant in the middle. On third downs, the Patriots rushed three, dropped eight into a Cover 2 scheme and Wilfork continually bull-rushed, pushing the pocket backwards into Joe Flacco and was a consistent thorn in the Ravens side. His play on third and 3 with just under four minutes remaining resulted in a loss of 3 which forced the Ravens from trying a tying field goal necessitating them trying for a 4th and six which failed. The Ravens lined up in shotgun formation showing pass. The pulled a guard who whiffed when Wilfork read the play and shot into the backfield, hitting Rice for a loss.
On the next snap at 4th and 6, he drove Matt Birk again into Flacco collapsing the pocket with just three rushers and making Flacco get rid of the ball high, harmlessly to the sideline….result, Patriots ball.
All game long Wilfork and the Patriots front seven, including Spikes were winning the battles at the line of scrimmage and getting penetration which limited Rice’s ability to cut back. They negated the trap game for the Ravens and the running lanes were just not there for Rice. On the day, he carried the ball 21 times for 67 yards, good for only a 3.2 yard per average.
Wilfork played on nearly 96% percent of the snaps yesterday, and over 85% for the year, unheard of for a big man. All week the talk was about Ed Reed and Ray Lewis. But on the big stage of the Championship game, it was Wilfork who stepped up.
Missed FG was Bad Clock Management- Much has been made of the botched 32 yard field goal by Billy Cundiff and it was a kick that he has to make with the game on the line. But it was also a blunder by John Harbaugh in terms of clock management.
During the final drive, the cameras panned over several times to Cundiff on the sidelines. They showed him wearing sweatpants over his uniform in an attempt to stay warm. But on the final kick, Cundiff was late running onto the field and had to rush to get into position.
With just 15 seconds on the clock and two timeouts in your pocket and your season on the line, don’t you give your kicker the time to make this all important kick? It wasn’t like you were going to need two timeouts anyway with that amount of time remaining anyway. Brady didn’t have the time to do anything with the ball, so why save them?
I know Harbaugh is a fiery guy, but that is his fault, and while Cundiff should have been prepared, the coach has the ultimate responsibility and in this case, Harbaugh choked plain and simple. Call timeout, let your kicker get settled and go for overtime.
Team Pulled together for Win- This was, as I said earlier a very evenly played game. Both teams had their targets to key on and did their job. For the Patriots, Wilfork and Spikes were keys to the defense. Spikes was huge in the running game utilizing the “Mike Blitz”, Belichick used his natural instinctive style of play to be a disrupter in the running game and it worked to a tee. Spikes also came up with the huge interception of Flacco in the fourth quarter to stuff a potential game winning drive.
Another key play was on the final drive was the pass to Lee Evans in the end zone. Sterling Moore was beaten on the play but didn’t quit on it. He played through the pass and used a hand to knock the ball free without panic. It was a huge play by a young player, Evans the veteran has to make that play. He didn’t and that is a large reason why the Ravens are going home today.
Julian Edelman played on both sides of the ball, providing quality snaps on offense, defense as well as special teams. Belichick loves players with versatility, and Edelman fit the bill to a tee yesterday. Does anyone remember someone playing two ways and STs in a championship game?
Patriots trap game out of the shotgun yesterday was a big, big lift. No one expected them to be able to run the ball effectively against the Ravens but the offensive line and the running backs especially BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a very solid game.
If we said that Brady would have zero TD passes and 2 INTs for the game, nobody would have liked their chances. But football is a team game and the team stepped up. Pack for Indy…
Tune in tomorrow night for our weekly Blog-Talk Radio podcast Patriots 4th and 2 as host Russ Goldman, Derek Havens, Damien Jarrett and I will do a recap of the Ravens game. All of us are writers for PatsFans.com and bring a nice perspective to the weekly events for the Patriots.
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