What's the toughest thing about playing the Patriots? Most people would say it's having to face the pick-you-apart passing of quarterback Tom Brady or the wily schemes of coach Bill Belichick – two guys headed to the Hall of Fame.
Both are headaches, but in a close game like yesterday's between the Ravens and Patriots, there's another challenging aspect to the Patriots that you have to overcome if you're going to beat them.
They don't beat themselves. They seldom, if ever, do anything on the field that makes life easier for you.
That's what did in the Ravens yesterday, sending Baltimore to its first defeat of 2009.
This game was dead even for the most part, a playoff-caliber back-and-forth brawl that was up for grabs in the final minute. It could easily have ended with the Ravens on top, but it didn't because the Ravens did just a little bit more to beat themselves than the Patriots.
Overall, the Ravens played well enough to beat most opponents, hitting fiercely, overcoming setbacks, making plays, and rallying impressively in the final minutes; you can be sure the Patriots were relieved to win, 27-21. But the Ravens made life easier for the Patriots at a few key moments, and the Patriots, as usual, didn't reciprocate much.
Several Ravens vented about the officiating after the game, challenging calls and spots, but those didn't determine the outcome. The Ravens gave away three points when Chris Carr fumbled the opening kickoff, leading to a New England field goal. Later in the first quarter, they had the Patriots stopped when Haloti Ngata was flagged for hitting Brady in the helmet on a third down incompletion, and the Patriots, instead of punting, went on to score a touchdown. (Baltimore fans angry about the call need to remember that the Patriots' Mike Wright was flagged for the same foul against Flacco in the second quarter.)
Near the end of the first half, the Ravens probably gave away more points when quarterback Joe Flacco and receiver Mark Clayton seemed to miscommunicate on a sideline throw, leading to an interception at the New England 17.
"A score there would have been big," Flacco said.
And then there was the key mistake: on a fourth down in the final minute, Clayton dropped an on-target pass that would have given the Ravens a first down inside the New England 10. The Ravens weren't in the end zone yet, but Clayton's drop kept them from getting to take a handful of shots at winning the game.
"We gave a lot (of things) to a good team, especially early in the game," Terrell Suggs said.
How, conversely, did the Patriots made the Ravens' life easier?
Well, there was a huge moment in the third quarter when Suggs stripped Brady of the ball and Dwan Edwards fell on the fumble in the end zone for a touchdown. The Patriots had been 10 points ahead, basically in control, and the fumble changed the game's direction. But it wasn't a New England mistake so much as just a tremendous play by Suggs.
On the play before that, a punt, the Patriots' Kevin Faulk lost a fumble that a teammate recovered -- incredibly, New England's first fumble in 622 plays.
Pro football games, like those in many other sports, often are decided by who gives things away – or who doesn't. The Ravens, like the Patriots, are among the NFL's best in that realm. Their fundamental strategy in recent years, when they lacked a high-scoring offense to go with their strong defense, was to limit their own blunders and capitalize on their opponents' mistakes. They fared relatively well with it, and now that their offense is more potent with Flacco, they're trying to establish themselves as a top-tier team.
With that in mind, they shouldn't be too discouraged about this defeat. Playing on the road against a championship team, they were an even match physically, an even match statistically, and had the game in their grasp at the end. One team committed just a few key mistakes, and the other barely committed any. That was the difference, period. And you know what? That's not much of a difference.
John Eisenberg* worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.*