Pats have to rebuild aura of invincibility

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – In one corner of Gillette Stadium hang three Super Bowl banners; in the other, one that celebrates the New England Patriots' perfect regular season in 2007. They're designed to motivate and intimidate – a remembrance of a decade of not just dominance, but resilience.

Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Kelley Washington(notes) skipped off the Gillette field Sunday, down a tunnel underneath those Super Bowl reminders and shouted about what he thought of all of that.

"The era is over," Washington crowed.

Whatever New England once was is gone. Whatever it once stood for has been desecrated. It's not that the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady(notes) Patriots can't ever rebound and become contenders again. They return great talent, have a number of young stars and a slew of draft picks in the upcoming NFL draft.

It's just that if they are ever to be a feared team deserving the ultimate in respect, they'll have to re-earn it.

The old mystique died when New England didn't bother to show up for the start of a first-round playoff game against a Ravens team that instead showed all the heart and hunger of those old Patriots.

Baltimore physically and mentally pounded New England 33-14 to advance to a Saturday night showdown in Indianapolis.

"We didn't come to play, point blank," Pats nose tackle Vince Wilfork(notes) said. "A JV football team … probably would've given a better effort than we did."

This was humiliating for New England and re-energizing for Baltimore; one team playing with full determination, the other just going through the motions, like a trip to the second round was its birth right.

Baltimore doesn't care who your daddy is, what your trophy case looks like or anything about your record or reputation (listen up, Indy). It promises to deliver the one thing it can control: being the most physical team on the field. What happens after that happens after that.

"It's our will against the other team's will," running back Ray Rice(notes) said.

Rice broke whatever will the Patriots had on the very first play from scrimmage when he ran 83 yards nearly unabated for a touchdown. It was so easy that from the sideline, teammate Ray Lewis(notes) assumed there must have been a holding penalty. There wasn't; it was just the beginning of the Baltimore offensive front pushing the Patriots around.

On the ensuing possession, Brady lazily waved a ball around, got stripped and set Baltimore up on the New England 17-yard line. The Ravens punched it in five plays later. Not five minutes into the game it was 14-0. By the end of the quarter it was 24-0, thanks to two interceptions by Brady. The game was never in doubt from there.

"Not too much to say," said Belichick, wearing a pained look. "They outcoached us. They outplayed us."

Brady in home playoff games
Date Result Stats
Jan. 10, 2010
(Wild card)
Lost to Ravens,
33-14
23-42, 154 yds.
2 TDs, 3 INTs
Jan. 21 2008
(Conf. champ.)
Beat Chargers,
21-12
22-33, 209 yds.
2 TDs, 3 INTs
Jan. 12, 2008
(Divisional)
Beat Jags,
31-20
26-28, 262 yds.
3 TDs
Jan. 7, 2007
(Wild card)
Beat Jets,
37-16
22-34, 212 yds.
2 TDs
Jan. 7, 2006
(Wild card)
Beat Jags,
28-3
15-27, 201 yds.
3 TDs
Jan. 16, 2005
(Divisional)
Beat Colts,
20-3
18-27, 144 yds.
pass TD, rush TD
Jan. 18, 2004
(Conf. champ.)
Beat Colts,
24-14
22-37, 237 yds.
1 TD, 1 INT
Jan. 10, 2004
(Divisional)
Beat Titans,
17-14
21-41, 201 yds.
1 TD
Jan. 19, 2002
(Divisional)
Beat Raiders,
16-13 OT
32-52, 312 yds.
rush TD

To take nothing away from the Ravens, this was a foundation-rattling performance for New England, absurdly bad and perhaps the worst game since Brady and Belichick turned this franchise into an elite club.

Those banners were earned through effort and energy as much as talent. The Patriots entered this game banged up, both in those who played (Brady) and those who hobbled around on crutches (Wes Welker(notes)). But Belichick built the program here on competing anyway, proving critics wrong by finding new stars to step in for old ones. If nothing else, they came to play.

"We always found ways to compete through January," Brady said. "All the mental toughness we need to overcome [adversity], that's something we need to work on. We didn't put our best effort out there."

That was the most stunning thing: In the trenches New England was a non-factor, watching defenders repeatedly pressure Brady and the Ravens' running backs churn out 234 yards.

"We beat them up," Washington said.

It shouldn't have been this easy, what with Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco(notes) hobbled with an injury and playing a limited role. The New England defense, though, couldn't force Flacco into having to make plays and they couldn't stop Rice, the wrecking ball out of Rutgers, from bashing his way for positive yardage.

“It’s not like we are 2-14. We’re not at that stage.”

The Patriots aren't likely to collapse.

"It's not like we are 2-14," Brady noted. "We're not at that stage."

They do need to find a way to return the aura to the era, though. A couple years ago, just being the Patriots counted for some points. They played with supreme confidence and commitment. The memory of past performances would lift players to postseason heights. Opponents entered games knowing there was going to be a fight.

Sunday there was no fight, there were no heights. There was just a team that quit, if it even showed up long enough to quit. Until New England proves itself again, this is the performance that will cause doubt in their minds and hope in their opponents.

What Baltimore proved is that if you punch these guys hard enough, the Pats won't punch back.

Brady mentioned "mental toughness" and "leadership" a half-dozen times each in his postgame press conference. Belichick answered 11 of his 19 questions with one-sentence mutters. Wilfork and others expressed complete shock at what the personality of this team had become. The locker room was home to a lot of stunned silence.

Meanwhile, down the way, Lewis said he was already focused on Peyton Manning(notes) and the Colts, the next challenge of what he hopes will be the Annihilation of League Super Powers Tour. Baltimore is headed to the heartland to hit someone; hit them hard and then hard again. It's what they call fun.

"We're on a great journey," Lewis said.

What New England is on is anyone's guess.