Tuesday, November 30, 2004

PATRIOTS GAME

By Adam H. Beasley, from Ravens.com

After standing toe-to-toe with the defending World Champions for 30 minutes, the Ravens saw first-hand what is needed to take the next step.

In the Patriots’ 24-3 home victory Sunday, as Gillette Stadium was swamped in a heavy rain storm, the Patriots’ momentum overtook Baltimore like a tidal wave.

New England capitalized on good defense, a big turnover and made virtually no mistakes in the game’s final half to win for the 17th straight time at home.

“We just clearly weren’t a good enough football team today to come in and challenge the World Champions,” said Ravens coach Brian Billick, whose team dropped to 7-4 with the loss. “We’ve got five weeks to…improve to the point that we can come in here and play with a championship-caliber team.”

With a top-heavy AFC, the Ravens need to play at a playoff level for the next five weeks if they want to return to the postseason for the fourth time in five years.

The loss put Baltimore three full games behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North with five to play, making a Wild Card berth the most likely path to the playoffs. Currently, the Ravens are tied with Denver for the conference’s 6th-best record, but only six make the playoffs.

If they do return to the postseason, they will face teams like the Patriots (10-1), who minimize their opponent’s strengths and exploit any weaknesses.

The second half of Sunday’s game was a perfect case study. By most accounts, the two teams played an even first half, but in the third quarter, New England hit on all cylinders.

The Patriots scored on three consecutive possessions – two long Adam Vinatieri field goals and a 1-yard touchdown run by Corey Dillon – to stake to a 14-point lead.

A comeback of that magnitude, against that team, in that stadium, would be difficult for any team.

But for a Ravens outfit that was without three offensive starters – including two Pro Bowlers – it was a task too tall.

Right tackle Orlando Brown was a game-day scratch due to a lingering knee injury, and so he joined running back Jamal Lewis and tight end Todd Heap, both of whom have ankle ailments, on the inactive list.

Without these players, the Ravens’ offense stalled in the sludge, generating just 29 yards and no points in the second half.

“We really couldn’t get that good drive going,” said quarterback Kyle Boller, who threw his first interception in a month and lost a fumble that resulted in a Patriots touchdown. “It was pretty much a mud fest out there, in the middle [of the field].”

The torrential rain storm – which converted Foxboro into a Woodstock-like mud pit – surely limited both teams’ ability to throw the ball, as neither Boller nor Tom Brady went over 200 yards or threw a touchdown.

When the elements are at their worst, teams rely on their running backs the most. With Lewis, the NFL’s rushing champion a year ago, sidelined, Chester Taylor filled in admirably against a stout Patriots defense. However, he was out-dueled by Dillon, who went over 100 yards against his longtime rivals for the first time in three years.

The former Bengals back churned out 123 yards and the score on 30 carries, with the bulk of his production coming in the decisive second half.

“They came out and executed their game-plan in the second half,” said defensive end Anthony Weaver. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to execute ours.

“We’ve got to play a 60-minute game if you play a team like that,” Weaver added. “We didn’t do that today.”

The Ravens’ defense had the disadvantage of fighting uphill for the first three drives of the second half.

New England took over on its own 41, 48 and Baltimore’s 48-yard line on those possessions. Thus, they had to go only 30 yards on each of those drives to move into scoring range. In a game that field goals were as valuable as touchdowns, that field position was crucial.

Conversely, the Ravens were never able to get out of their own end. New England protected its banged up secondary by giving the Ravens the short passes, but doubling up on the intermediate and long routes.

That’s what fooled Boller in the first quarter, when he threw his first interception in 124 attempts. Cornerback Randall Gay, who was thrust into action due to injuries to the Patriots’ top three corners, stepped in front of a sideline pass and made the pick.

“We’re not built to come out in three-wides and four-wides all the time to take advantage of some of those mismatches,” said Ravens offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh. “Until we turned the ball over, it was a relative close game.”

Boller’s second turnover – a fumble on a sack that was recovered by Jarvis Green in the end zone – gave the Patriots a 24-3 lead and put the game away.

With the loss, the Ravens’ margin for error the rest of the way is tiny. They have three home games against sub-.500 teams, but 10 wins will not necessarily get them into the postseason.

They might have to beat either Indianapolis or Pittsburgh on the road just to earn the conference’s sixth playoff spot.

“We’ve got five more weeks left and anything can happen,” said cornerback Gary Baxter. “Our hopes are still high. We’ve just got to take care of business."

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