By Shane A. Leketa
When the New England Patriots went into week three they knew that they were going to have their hands full with a very tough Baltimore Ravens team. Both teams possessed a 1-1 record heading into the game, with neither wanting to go to 1-2.
The nationally-televised game at Baltimore's M & T Bank Stadium was charged with electricity. It felt more like a playoff game rather than a regular season matchup.
Although the game itself was overshadowed by another replacement referee debacle, this contest was a hard fought battle of two AFC powerhouses giving the crowd and fans what they were looking for.
Going into the game, one of the ways that the Patriots were going to try to beat the Ravens was the use of the running game and the hurry-up offense. The formula utilizing both Danny Woodhead and Stevan Ridley worked. It was especially successful against a defense missing top playmaker Terrell Suggs. The two running backs carried the ball 28 total times keeping the defensive unit of the Ravens honest throughout the night.
When it came to the running attack, one might have asked why not more of the young, exciting Ridley but with the offensive scheme that was in place and the hurry-up offense they were executing, Woodhead was a better fit for the game plan.
Two of New England's touchdowns on the day came from Woodhead and the other came from Brandon Bolden punching it in from short yardage.
New England's passing game was also looking strong on Sunday. Tom Brady spread the ball around to 8 different receivers with Brandon Lloyd leading with 9 grabs and Wes Welker leading in yards with 142.
Before this game, a lot of critics were asking if the Patriots offense was going to be able to perform at a high level after the loss of Aaron Hernandez. The answer was yes. The offense gained 396 total yards on the day, punching it in the end zone four times.
Contrary to the first two weeks of the season, the defensive side of the ball did not perform well, giving up 503 total yards in the game. Especially discouraging was the 382 yards the Ravens gained through the air. There were multiple examples of blown coverages with Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty giving Baltimore QB, Joe Flacco an open field to take advantage of.
Devin McCourty summed it up after the game.
"We didn't execute well enough. We just have to play for 60 minutes and make plays at the end of the game," he said. "It starts with myself individually. Just have to get things done."
McCourty had a chance to kill another Ravens drive until he dropped a potential interception.
"Disappointing. Disappointing, I have to make that play," McCourty admitted. "That's a play I can make. I just have to play better. We just have to adjust."
New England's secondary kept giving up large chunks of yardage allowing the Ravens to score. It was obvious that the front defensive line was getting no pressure on Flacco. The Ravens blockers held Chandler Jones and Vince Wilfork at bay, never allowing them to make Flacco uncomfortable.
The defense stepped up early in the fourth quarter, actually shutting down the Ravens on a fourth down attempt. New England's offense had the ball, a 10-point lead and just 10:50 to go.
Then New England's offense imploded. Questionable play-calling by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, contributed to the melt-down. Needing just a few first downs, McDaniels put Brady in shotgun formation with no blockers, leading to a coverage sack and a punt. Giving the Ravens the ball at back with 7:29 remaining.
This is the second week in a row that McDaniels is under scrutiny for play calling in the game. How will he respond to these criticisms of how he, and the Patriots offense control the game in crunch time? It will be interesting to watch moving forward as they are trying to change the identity of this team incorporating a running game and a down field passing scheme.
It would be silly though not to talk about the impact that the replacement referees have had on this and other games in the National Football League, more notably on Monday Night in the Green Bay/Seattle game.
The officials had various calls that were more of "phantom" penalties that threw the momentum of the defense and offense off. These bad calls impacted both the Ravens and the Patriots in this game and made the game hard to watch overall. The most egregious call might have been at the end of the game in ruling a field goal attempt by Ravens kicker Justin Tucker good when it appeared that it might have gone wide of the uprights. The move drew the ire of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick who reached for an official for an explanation as the officials ran off the field, electing not to offer one.
Newly returned Deion Branch was tactful when criticizing the replacement refs.
"Unfortunately, some of the calls… we may not agree with them, but it is what it is," Branch said. "That's been going on in the entire league. We just have to go out and take care of what we can and take it out of the refs' hands."
The unfortunate piece of this game is, like the Monday night debacle, it will be remembered for the officiating and bad calls and not for the actual warrior like performances by the Ravens and the Patriots on the field.
The Patriots are going to have to refocus and forget all personal thoughts of this game because they have a divisional rival next week in the revamped Buffalo Bills that are looking to bring the Patriots to 1-3.
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