My fifth grade teacher once told me that admitting you’re wrong is one of the hardest things for a man to do. Well, today I am here to tell you that I was wrong. I was dead wrong.
I wrote an article last week about the Patriots’ chances without Rob Gronkowski in the AFC Championship game. I assured our readers that not only would the Pats’ offense be fine without Gronk, but would actually excel in the face of adversity.
Wrong. Wrong, wrong, and wrong.
Sunday marked the second game in as many years where the Baltimore Ravens traveled to Foxboro to take on the New England Patriots with a Super Bowl bid on the line. Last year’s game resulted in a 23-20 New England victory but Sunday produced a highly different result. The Pats jumped out to a 13-7 lead after two quarters, but the second half was dominated by Baltimore who scored 21 unanswered points to close the game. The result was a 28-13 win and a trip to the Super Bowl two weeks from now, the franchise’s first appearance in the big game since the 2000 season.
I knew the Ravens would be a tough opponent for the Patriots but I didn’t think we would see the kind of game we saw. I don’t think anybody did. If you’ve read any of my other work for Stoop Sports you probably have gathered that I am a Patriots fan. I have had the fortune to watch one of the greatest teams in the history of football dominate a league that is designed for no team to be able to dominate. I have seen 10 AFC East titles, 7 AFC Championship appearances, and 3 Super Bowl Victories. However, one thing I haven’t seen in 19 years and 2 months of my life is the Pats fold over like they did in the second half of Sunday’s game. I could go into detail about who’s to blame and what needs to change, but like I stated before, that’s not why I’m writing. I was sure the best offense in football would expose a middle of the road Ravens defense, and I was positive that Tom Brady would shred a relatively weak secondary to pieces. And once again, I was shortsighted at best.
The Patriots’ offense didn’t skip a beat when Rob Gronkowski suffered a broken forearm during the team’s Week 11 matchup against the Colts. They ended the season atop the NFL in total offense, which made me forget about the impact Gronk can have on any given game. After cruising to a 41-28 victory over the Texans in the divisional round, they truly looked unstoppable as Brady was excelling, easily, without his favorite target.
But on Sunday against the Ravens, the offense stumbled out of the gates. The Patriots found themselves in a 3rd and short situation on their first drive and Brady had an open Wes Welker in Ravens territory. The two failed to connect and were forced to punt, but this pass that Welker should have caught was far from his biggest missed opportunity in the game. New England went up early after a long 13-play drive that ended with 3 on the scoreboard, but the game’s first points were followed by a 13-play drive by Baltimore that was capped off by a touchdown. The Pats would score 10 straight points to close the half, but that was it.
Brandon Lloyd opened the game with a few nice catches but went virtually silent after the first quarter. Deion Branch was a nonfactor. The run game never found its rhythm as the three Patriot running backs (Woodhead, Ridley, Vereen) combined for only 103 yards on the ground. Nate Solder was penalized for holding on a critical 3rd down conversion in the third quarter. After Welker, the Patriots lack of depth at wide receiver was exposed for the first time all season. The effect of the absence of Gronk was made evident from the first quarter, and things didn’t get any better from there.
A huge turning point came on a third down play in the third quarter with the Pats up 13-7. Brady dropped back and had Wes Welker open downfield. A catch would have extended the drive and moved New England into Ravens territory, a drop would force them to punt yet again. The ball caromed off Welker’s facemask and fell to the turf. The Ravens didn’t look back and scored 21 straight points en route to victory.
The Patriots were supposed to win the AFC Championship, even without Rob Gronkowski, but the Pats hot streak came to a halt as they posted a season-low 13 points. Gronk was missed in the passing and rushing game, and the loss served as a snap back to reality for the New England fan base. He will have an offseason to recover and hopefully return to full form for the beginning of the 2013 season, and I expect this offense to be just as potent next year as Tom Brady will continue to make his case for why he’s one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game.
But if he wants to lead New England to another Super Bowl, Gronkowski must be on the field and healthy.