January 21, 2013

Steve Solloway: Patriots down and out

The Baltimore Ravens hand New England a dreary night

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - This time, Tom was not terrific, and the New England Patriots' season is over.

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Patriots’ QB Tom Brady didn’t exactly sit down on the job Sunday, but the combination of a furious Baltimore defense, dropped passes by Wes Welker and a below-average performance by Brady himself precludes a trip to New Orleans.

The Associated Press

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Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, right, celebrates with teammate Vonta Leach after Sunday’s victory. Lewis has said that he plans to retire at the end of his postseason.

The Associated Press

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No return to New Orleans and this year's Super Bowl. No Back to the Bayou.

The Baltimore Ravens beat the Patriots on Sunday night in the American Football Conference championship game, 28-13. Put the emphasis on "beat."

In a sport that can be brutal, this game was. In a culture where teams talk about hitting their opponent in the mouth, again and again, Baltimore did that. Sometimes too literally.

The sight of Patriots running back Stevan Ridley lying on the turf with the football rolling free made you sick. He was down and virtually out. The helmet-to-helmet hit by Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard knocked Ridley out of the game with a head injury. As the football rolled away, so did the Patriots' chances. Baltimore recovered the ball and scored another touchdown.

The underdogs from Baltimore won. The Ravens play the San Francisco 49ers in two weeks to see which team is king of the NFL's mountain. It will be the Harbaugh Bowl, named for brothers John and Jim, head coaches of the Ravens and the 49ers. Fresh faces.

Players on the team once labeled the new dynasty after the wondrous Super Bowl wins in 2002, 2004 and 2005 are cleaning out their lockers.

Tom Brady is 35 years old. So many Patriots fans have grown up with him. He will walk into the football Hall of Fame in Canton someday. He set a number of statistical records Sunday night. He threw for more than 300 yards, usually a sign of good times. He threw for a touchdown.

But he was intercepted twice. His receivers dropped the ball. His team struggled around him. He struggled.

"Watching Brady is like watching (Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez) get old," said Jay Almeida, a Patriots fan from Stoneham, Mass. "We know there are bad times ahead of us."

I found Almeida standing high above the field, behind Section 319 and behind the goal posts in the closed end of Gillette Stadium. He didn't know how many Patriots games he's seen in the stadium. A lot.

We watched the Patriots drive to the opposite end of the field, setting up for Stephen Gostkowski's 31-yard field goal. The Patriots led 3-0. Almeida shook his head, shifting from one foot to another. Partly to keep the blood circulating, partly because he was anxious.

"I'm worried," he said. "(Baltimore) has no fear. You expect teams to feel a little intimidated coming in here and playing Tom Brady and the Patriots. Not this team. It's a good team. The Patriots might not win this one."

Baltimore wasn't bluffing, Almeida was saying. The Ray Lewis factor was troubling. The fierce warrior-linebacker retires after his last game in the playoffs. He wants to walk off the field in triumph with his Ravens teammates. Not be carried off on his shield.

Those emotions carried Baltimore through two previous playoff victories. Surely that card couldn't be played again. But it was.

"They've got my respect," said Almeida, hours before the game was lost. "That's why I'm worried."

Worried for the present, worried for the future. Brady is healthy but growing older. The Patriots are young and talented, and you wonder. Was Sunday's defeat a speed bump, or another sign the era of head coach Bill Belichick and his quarterback is nearing the end of the road?

"There's no question in my mind that (we'll) be back to this level," massive Vince Wilfork, the defensive lineman, said after the defeat. "We're one of the most consistent teams in the NFL. We'll be back."

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