It ended with two balls descending to Earth. The one off the foot of Billy Cundiff will receive all the criticism and blame, and be squarely in the crosshairs of a grieving city’s venom. This is the hollow existence of the field goal kicker, a job where heroes are born through kicks in blizzards, and lonesome depression is just as instant when that 9-iron is shanked.
Cundiff will now live forever in that black hole, never forgetting the time he missed a routine 32-yard chip shot to tie the 2012 AFC Championship Game and send it into overtime, extending his team’s fight to represent their conference in football’s biggest game. It’s a fate he doesn’t deserve, and one that could have easily been avoided.
The ball that fell to the cold Foxborough turf just two plays earlier was far more crushing. With 27 seconds left Lee Evans held what likely would have been the game-winning catch barring a miraculous drive downfield by Tom Brady. It wobbled against his chest and rested in his fingertips long enough for Evans to secure the ball and the game confidently.
That didn’t happen, and the swat and drop that followed made Cundiff’s appearance necessary. Cundiff bears his share of the responsibility for not executing a fundamental role in the kicker’s job description–to be calm and steady in the face of extreme pressure. Right now the emotion is high for Ravens fans, with couch cushions thrown, and purchases of hard alcohol in Charm City bars climbing rapidly. But without the greasy substance on Evans’ hands, Cundiff’s Scott Norwood impersonation wouldn’t exist in our memories.
That’s not how the grieving process will work, though. Fans need a subject for their ire, and the easy narrative is the one that casts Cundiff as their villain, when really the crippling mistakes extended far beyond him, and even Evans.
For most of this game Joe Flacco was far more efficient and trustworthy than the quarterback we saw last weekend against Houston who finished with a meager 51.9 completion percentage. That number climbed to 61.1 percent today, but while the consistent side of Flacco’s inconsistent throwing was present in New England, decision-making skills don’t sway as easily. Flacco’s interception at the beginning of the fourth quarter on a ball intended for Ed Dickson and thrown into the teeth of New England’s coverage derailed momentum, and halted a drive at midfield with Baltimore on top 20-16, and looking to seize control.
Then there was the offensive line, a unit that allowed an average of two sacks per game throughout the regular season. They watched as Flacco was downed twice in just the first 11 minutes, three times overall, and hurried often against a pass rush missing Andre Carter, and one that’s typically solid, but not spectacular.
That same line opened its pearly, inviting gates to Vince Wilfork as he drove up the middle with just over seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and stuffed Ray Rice for a three-yard loss on third down. Suddenly a lengthy 52-yard field became an impossible 55-yarder, making a pass attempt on fourth and six necessary, and that ended the same way as many of Flacco’s attempts under pressure: wild, waving, and wayward.
An offseason of mourning a missed kick and a dropped pass also won’t include the disappearance of Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and anything that resembled a surge by Baltimore’s front seven. A unit that had sacked Tom Brady nine times during their last three meetings for 71 yards lost gave the Pats QB more than enough time to sit comfortably and quietly, and find a variety of targets.
An uncharacteristically leaky run defense also fed an uncharacteristically effective New England rushing attack. The Ravens were one of just two teams to allow less than 95 rushing yards per game in the regular season (92.6). That number wasn’t threatened, as the Pats finished with 96 yards. But 68 of those yards came from BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the quiet rusher who eclipsed that mark only four times this year.
The result is haunting, especially for Cundiff and Evans. But the mistakes went far beyond the hands and foot of two men.