I want you to sit back, and think about something for a minute. I know, thinking on a Sunday usually isn’t advisable, since not thinking is generally the best way to consume football. But before we dive into the Ravens’ 28-13 upset win over New England in Foxboro that’s unleashed the Harbowl (*punches self*) in two weeks, there’s something deeper and all-encompassing which needs to be considered.
The losing teams in today’s championship games had names like Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Julio Jones, and Roddy White on their respective offenses. Those guys are pretty good, and they helped to give both the Patriots and Falcons halftime leads. Combined, the two teams held a lead of 37-21 at halftime. Yet still, combined they lost 56-37. That alone is shocking, but it gets worse.
Those teams with those names and that immense offensive firepower combined for exactly zero points in the second half of their games. Seriously.
For the Falcons earlier this afternoon, their loss was crushing yet expected, as only a week ago they did everything in their power to lose. This time they succeeded.
But for New England, the hurt was quite literally historic. Prior to today, New England was 67-0 at home with a lead at halftime in the Tom Brady era.
The crumbling was slow, yet unstoppable, featuring happenings that in hindsight now seem all too predictable, especially after the departure of Aqib Talib in the first half.
The cornerback’s hamstring injury led to the emergence of Anquan Boldin. The bulky but sure-handed Ravens wideout didn’t have a reception in the first half. But then during a second-half Baltimore surge which culminated in 21 unanswered points, Boldin was on the receiving end for 14 of them, catching two touchdown passes, and finishing with 60 receiving yards. Overall during the playoffs, Boldin is now averaging 92 yards per game.
That was the first inevitable Patriots demise, with Boldin presenting a height and bulk mismatch as Talib’s 6’1″, 205-pound frame sat on the sideline. Then there was the tight end debacle, because defending that position isn’t something Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory are especially fond of, along with the Patriots’ linebackers. Dennis Pitta scored the third second-half touchdown, and he finished with 55 receiving yards, including a 22-yarder. One of the worst defenses against tight ends remained, well, one of the worst defenses against tight ends.
Yes, the end result may have been surprising, but how we arrived there wasn’t. That continues with Wes Welker, and his inability to catch a football when a catch is sorely needed. Welker is great, and he’s one of the best slot receivers to ever play this game of football. But he led the league in drops during the regular season, and he had two more today, one of which came with the line of scrimmage on the Ravens’ 34 yard-line. The catch would have led to a first down, and at worst a field goal. Of course, in the end the points on that drive — field goal or touchdown — don’t matter, but there’s always something to be said for momentum, and an utter lack of it for New England in the second half.
What was odd and a deviation from the norm was the conservative strategy used by Bill Belichick, as the Patriots head coach chose to punt with his offense at or inside the opposition’s 35 yard-line twice.
Maybe it was the absence of a crucial cog otherwise named Rob Gronkowski during an equally crucial game, as a safety valve for Brady sat in the press box giving corporate dap. Or maybe it was the unexpected lack of a running game, with Stevan Ridley averaging only 3.8 yards per carry before leaving the game when his head was dislodged.
Maybe, or maybe it was none of those things. But Brady seemed…off, and he was widely outplayed by Joe Flacco. With his three touchdown passes today, Flacco now has eight this post season, with zero interceptions. He’s attempted 137 passes since throwing his last pick.
Brady was off, in a quite literal sense. He completed only 53.7 percent of his passes, 10 percent lower than his overall rate during the regular season, a time when his completion percentage fell below 60.0 only twice. For at least one day, he’s the poster boy for why the passing yards stat can be misleading on its own. He still finished with a good but not great 320 yards, yet he did it at a very uncharacteristic small ball pace of 5.9 yards per attempt. That’s again a drastic departure, as Brady averaged 7.6 yards per attempt throughout the season.
So now we wait, and spend two weeks dissecting three hours of football on the first Sunday in February. If you’re reading an NFL blog and have gotten this far into a post on said blog, the thought of that excites you. The Super Bowl is the pinnacle of the sport, and now the game features an intriguing, innovative offense led by Colin Kaepernick, and the potential that the final game of Ray Lewis’ career could have a dream ending.
It’s all just maybe a little too poetic and perfect. Just please, for the love of all that is sacred in this world, do not make any reference to the Harbowl. Championship weekend has only been over for a few hours, and that name and that storyline is already relentless.