The Baltimore Ravens now have seven months to second guess.
They’ll second guess the decision to settle for a field goal on fourth-and-one inside the New England 10-yard line in the first half of a game they lost by just three points.
Cam Cameron will second guess his decision to throw it twice in a row on second- and third-down on the New England 14-yard line with less than a minute to play. Both passes fell incomplete, and Baltimore was forced to settle for a field goal attempt to tie the game. That obviously didn’t pan out.
Joe Flacco will second guess his decision to throw into tight coverage on that final third-down play, even though he had an easy first down in front of him had he just tucked it and slid.
The team as a whole will regret getting just six points off of three New England turnovers, while Lee Evans might spend the rest of his life thinking about an astonishing drop on what would have been the game-winning touchdown catch with 22 seconds remaining.
They’ll regret becoming only the third team since 1970 to lose a conference title game despite winning the turnover margin by two or more.
And they’ll regret the fact that they somehow lost despite converting over 50 percent of their third downs, dominating in time of possession and, for the most part, getting the offensive game plan right against a front seven that came to play.
It’s not often you see a team lose despite outgaining its opponent through the air and on the ground, outperforming them on third down and winning both the turnover and time of possession battle. But at Gillette Stadium, you can’t afford many mistakes. You can’t afford drops like the one Evans had, and you can’t afford shanked field goal attempts from 32 yards out.
As a result, the Patriots have finally notched a win against a team with a winning record, and that’s enough to send Bill Belichick and Tom Brady to their fifth Super Bowl together — something no other coach-quarterback duo has done before. Brady will have a chance to tie an NFL record with his fourth Lombardi Trophy as a starting quarterback, and he’ll either have a chance to do so against the team his Pats lost to in crushing fashion in 2007, or against the team Brady cheered for growing up.
Scaring the Giants and the Niners is that, two weeks from today, Brady isn’t likely to deliver a second mediocre performance in a row. On Sunday, he was outplayed handily by Flacco. The Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez-Wes Welker crew was superb again — and kudos to Gronk for battling back after suffering an injury in the third quarter — but Brady was bailed out by a red-hot pass rush and a surprisingly effective running game, which has to be encouraging for a team that will have to battle another elite, bruising defense on Super Bowl Sunday.
We often hear that the Patriots are flawed beyond Brady and his receivers. But they won this game in spite of Brady, which is hard to believe. The weak New England secondary was picked on at times, and they should fear a potential matchup with Eli Manning. But as long as Vince Wilfork and that defensive front is clicking, this is a team that might be able to win a Lombardi Trophy without Brady at his best.