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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It was as if someone swapped the quarterback helmets.
The redoubtable Tom Brady, the once invincible Tom Brady, the kid who won three Super Bowls by the time he was 27 years old, showed up for work Sunday in his home stadium fully expecting to expand his command on the postseason.
And when his team held a 13-7 lead at the half, the numbers suggested the Patriots would be Super Bowl-bound for the second time in as many years.
|Tom Brady walks off the field having lost at home in a game he led at halftime for this first time in his Patriots career.|
After all, Brady was a perfect 67-0 in his career when leading at halftime at home.
"But you've got to understand we've got an advantage over every other team that walked into Foxborough before because we've been here before and we've also won here before," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said.
Suggs' teammate, the confident yet perpetually maligned Joe Flacco, defiantly predicted his team would be the ones who punched their tickets to New Orleans for the Super Bowl in the wake of this AFC Championship tilt, not Tom Terrific.
Baltimore's quarterback backed up his resolve with a nearly flawless performance, throwing for three touchdowns, 240 yards and no picks. Flacco managed his team's offense so expertly, the Patriots' exhausted defense ultimately wilted from being stretched out so far and so long.
In other words, by implementing their own giddy-up offense, the Ravens beat the Patriots at their own game.
Brady? He was the quarterback who could not establish any rhythm, could not convert on third down. He was the one who threw two interceptions, who made some questionable game-management decisions at critical moments.
He was the one who failed to put a single point on the board in the second half and walked off a 28-13 loser.
It was New England's season-low in points.
Thus, Flacco and his offense advances to the Super Bowl along with a visibly emotional Suggs, who proclaimed as he skipped into the victorious locker room, "Tell [the Patriots] to have fun at the Pro Bowl! Arrogant f------!"
"A second-half shutout, that's pretty good," Suggs said as he pulled on an AFC championship T-shirt. "I can't wait to hear what [ESPN personality] Skip Bayless says tomorrow, because Joe once again -- for the second year in a row -- outplayed the great No. 12 and showed just how Joe Cool he is."
Flacco, you might recall, had trouble in last week's upset in Denver with managing the play clock, forcing the Ravens to call time out at a critical point of the game. It was a miscue that nearly cost his club the win.
There were no such glitches on Sunday. Flacco was unflappable, poised, the epitome of calm -- in other words, Brady-like.
New England's franchise quarterback, meanwhile, simply did not measure up to his own lofty standards.
The Patriots, in fact, had some game-clock issues of their own. New England had the ball on the 10-yard line 26 seconds before halftime when Brady was flushed from the pocket and decided to make a run for it. Safety Ed Reed was barreling toward him when Brady made the decision to slide to the 7-yard line. About seven seconds elapsed during the play, leaving 19 seconds on the game clock.
Inexplicably, Brady neither spiked the ball to stop the clock or called for a quick timeout. Belichick later explained it took longer than the Patriots anticipated for the ball to be spotted and for Brady to get to the line. In fact, by the time Brady finally did ask for a timeout, the game clock had dwindled to four seconds, leaving New England no choice but to settle for a Stephen Gostkowski 25-yard field goal.
"I would have loved to get the touchdown, but we settled for the field goal to go up, whatever it was," Brady said.
It was a head-scratching series, one that seemed to stun everyone in Gillette Stadium, including the Ravens' defenders.
"That was a break for us," cornerback Cary Williams said.
In the second half, as the Patriots' offense sputtered to establish any momentum, New England's defense pinned its hopes on forcing a Ravens turnover.
Flacco simply would not cooperate.
Yet there was Brady, with his team on the move deep in the fourth quarter, down 15 points with the season and a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
New England had just secured a first down at the Baltimore 24-yard line when Brady reared back and aimed for the end zone. The ball never got past the line. Pernell McPhee deflected the pass and Dannell Ellerbe pounced on the pop fly for an interception.
Here's the unvarnished truth: the Baltimore Ravens and Joe Flacco outplayed Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in every phase of the game.
Not some phases. Every phase.
The satisfaction of laying a beatdown on a heavily favored team that was next to unstoppable at home was palpable. The Ravens deserved to crow about this victory, and they did.
"You can't take anything away from No. 12," Suggs said. "You've got to play perfect to beat him. And we played perfect."
"We didn't want to leave here the same way we did last year, seeing the confetti drop on them and their dancing," tackle Bryant McKinnie said. "I mean, that hurt."
Baltimore's offense relied on three-receiver sets in the second half, accelerating the tempo of their attack and picking apart a Patriots defense that lost cornerback Aqib Talib to injury.
According to Williams, the Ravens' defense didn't make any adjustments on Brady and his receiving corps in the second half other than to continue to deliver punishing hits.
"We didn't do anything different, just stuck together and played our game," he said.
The stunning loss leaves Brady a pedestrian 7-7 in the postseason since his Super Bowl trifecta.
That begs a question you will hear a lot about in the days ahead: Has the window closed on Brady and Bill Belichick? The duo that once had the Midas touch hasn't won a Super Bowl since the 2004 season. That's eight years, and in this thirsty region, which, to coin a phrase from their basketball counterparts, is "championship driven," that's a disheartening fact.
"It stinks," Devin McCourty admitted. "You play in these games and you want to win them. We do a good job of getting the opportunities, but we can't take advantage of them."
It has become apparent that rugged, smashmouth teams bother the Patriots and their offense in particular. Maybe Rob Gronkowski would have made a difference. Maybe not.
Consider the numbers of Brady versus Flacco head-to-head since 2009, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information: In six games, both quarterbacks are 3-3, but Flacco has thrown 12 touchdowns and four picks, while Brady had thrown six touchdowns and nine picks.
In that time, Flacco's passer rating (97.5) is superior to Brady's (72.0), along with his completion rate (63.5 percent to 60.2) and his yards per attempt (7.4 to 6.4).
The ultimate indignity, obviously, is Flacco gets to play in the Harbaugh Bowl, while Brady gets to conjure up some fabricated injury to prevent him from playing in the Pro Bowl.
Does that mean it's time to hand Brady a cardigan sweater, a pair of slippers and some knitting needles for the "has been" quarterback home? C'mon now, you know better than that.
Brady is 35 years old. His best years might be behind him, but he is one of the best quarterbacks of all time, a meticulous, driven, detail-oriented leader who holds his teammates and himself to a high standard.
He will spend much of the offseason scheming and planning for next year, just as elite quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers will do. Do you want to kick them to the curb too?
Be careful what you wish for. While Brady may be 3-4 in the playoffs with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions since 2009, he's still among the very best. He remains a big part of the solution in New England, not the problem.
The recent struggles is wearing on everyone in Foxborough, including the veteran quarterback.
"It always comes to a screeching halt," Brady sighed. "That's just the way it is."
New England must now point to next year, with the real possibility looming that Brady's favored target, Wes Welker, might be moving on as a free agent.
The quarterback will return. That much is obvious.
Whether he can reboot a legacy that began with results that were nothing short of magical remains to be seen.