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The New England Patriots were completely dominating the Baltimore Ravens until they weren’t on Monday night. Trailing 23-3, the Ravens staged a comeback that was largely fueled by Patriots mistakes — namely, two awful ones on returns — that are uncharacteristic for a team that typically watches their opponents fold in this way.
But Brady hit Hogan on a 79-yard touchdown pass with 6:28 left, completely baffling Ravens safeties Eric Weddle and Matt Elam on the play, which provided the cushion in a 30-23 Patriots victory that was far tougher than it needed to be. Was this his MVP moment? Brady — no Gronk, no Danny Amendola, and with Julian Edelman receiving his QB’s ire early — finished 25-of-38 passing for 403 yards with three TD passes, including the knockout blow late. It’s the most he’s ever had in 10 meetings against the Ravens and the ninth-most yards he’s had in a regular-season game.
They needed every single one of those Brady yards in the end. The Patriots’ 20-point lead evaporated when tortured Patriots punt rookie returner Cyrus Jones fumbled his fourth (!) punt of the year, letting it hit off his foot with the Ravens recovering at the New England 3. Then Patriots replacement kickoff returner Matthew Slater, a Pro Bowl special-teamer, fumbled the kickoff and the Ravens pounced on it at the New England 22.
Joe Flacco (who finished with 324 pass yards) turned both turnovers into touchdowns, and the Ravens scored 14 points unanswered in a little over three game minutes. The Patriots lost only seven fumbles entering the game but coughed up two in a jiffy on special teams to flip what looked like a blowout on its head.
Entering the game, we expected fireworks. These teams do not like each other, and this was their ninth meeting since 2009, with four of those coming in the playoffs. Remember the trick-play stuff in Foxoboro two years ago? Still fresh in these teams’ minds for sure. So perhaps emotion took over during this tense game.
How else to explain all the special-teams gaffes by Bill Belichick- and John Harbaugh-coached teams?
In the first half, the Ravens were the ones shooting themselves in the feet. Devin Hester routinely misplayed punts, and he let one roll inside his own 5-yard line four minutes into the game. Patriots rookie Jonathan Jones downed it at the Baltimore 1, and defensive tackle Malcom Brown ripped through the line for a safety on the next play and a 2-0 Patriots lead.
Later in the first quarter, Shea McClellin leaped over the Ravens’ long snapper to block a Justin Tucker field-goal try (his first kick of any kind this season that wasn’t good), which helped spark a TD drive for the Patriots on which the Ravens’ best cornerback, Jimmy Smith, suffered a serious ankle injury. The safety-FG block combo was one the Patriots hadn’t pulled off since their first Super Bowl season, more than 30 years ago.
From @ESPNStatsInfo: The last time the Patriots had a blocked FG and a safety in the same game was Sept. 8, 1985 (Patriots 26, Packers 20).
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) December 13, 2016
Feeding off the strong play of his own team’s defense, Brady started to get hot and hurt the Ravens. He hit James White on a 61-yard catch that sparked an 89-yard drive capped by a Malcolm Mitchell TD on a dime from Brady. Suddenly, it was 16-0. Blowout, or so it seemed. Not so fast.
Joe Flacco was picked on the next play, desperately heaving a pass into two-deep coverage and picked by Devin McCourty (his first interception since last September). Brady had a chance to step on the Ravens’ necks at that point, driving the Patriots all the way to the Baltimore 2. But Brady threw a terrible pass on a worse decision that Weddle picked off. An underrated play: undrafted Ravens rookie Zach Orr’s TD-saving tackle the play before on Hogan.
The Patriots made it 23-3 on a terrific Brady-to-Martellus Bennett connection, but the wheels nearly fell off after that point. The plucky Ravens had their chances, and we’re left to wonder why — after two muffed special-teams tries by the Patriots — they would punt into the end zone and punt out of bounds in their two attempts after that to make the Patriots cleanly field a kick.
The Ravens cut it to a 23-20 deficit against a tired Patriots defense that was on the field 20 of the final 30 game minutes, making the first-half blocked field goal the difference at that point. But the Ravens defense, which had lost two cornerbacks in the game to injury, couldn’t stop Brady with the soul-crushing toss to Hogan and a close-out drive for the win.
So, ho hum, Brady bailed out his team with a mostly brilliant performance, adding to his MVP case, and the Patriots remain atop the AFC with yet another December win in Foxboro. Oh, and a few teammates should owe him dinner.
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