There was a lot I wanted to write about last night's MNF classic, but ESPN.com's Page 2 writer Greg Easterbrook did it all on his weekly Tuesday Morning Quarterback column:
What was Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan trying to do, ice the snapper? Baltimore led New England 24-20 with 1:48 remaining, and the Patriots were facing fourth-and-1; New England rushed up to the line to quick-snap, as the Patriots often do on fourth-and-1; the Ravens' defense expected a quick snap, was in position, and stopped the runner for a loss. Game over, Baltimore wins! But seemingly one second before the snap, Ryan called a timeout, so the play didn't count. Why did Ryan call a timeout? Beats me, the Ravens were in perfect position. New England ran another fourth-and-1 play and again lost yardage -- again it appeared as though Baltimore had won the game. But the zebras called a false start, a penalty that cannot be declined. (The whistle sounds on a false start, and the whistle ends the play.) New England converted on fourth-and-6. Then, four snaps later, Tom Brady threw incomplete on fourth down, and for the third time it appeared Baltimore had won! But the zebras called defensive holding, and you know what happened after that.
After the game, several Ravens complained that the officials -- who called 13 penalties against Baltimore, four against New England -- favored the Patriots. Losing teams often claim that the officials favored the winners; was there favoritism here? The defensive holding on fourth down with 55 seconds remaining was inarguable; the officials had to flag it. Ravens nickelback Jamaine Winborne theatrically removed his helmet after the call, and the officials could have flagged him for that, but they did not. But after Jabar Gaffney caught the touchdown pass that put the Flying Elvii in the lead with 44 seconds left, the zebras flagged Ravens linebacker Bart Scott twice for unsportsmanlike conduct -- once when he said something to an official and a second time when he picked up the flag and hurled it into the crowd. This was a stupid, stupid move. The very rare double-unsportsmanlike conduct penalty essentially awarded the game to New England; adding the encroachment penalty on the PAT, the Patriots kicked off from the Baltimore 35, drilling an easy touchback and preventing Baltimore's strong return game from creating good field position for the Ravens' final drive. The officials are not unaware of New England's record, and the widespread belief -- regardless whether this belief is grounded in fact -- is that the league wants the Patriots to finish undefeated. Excessively penalizing Baltimore in the final minute, in a manner that strongly aided New England, was at best a lapse by the officiating crew and at worst strange.
Ravens cornerback Samari Rolle said after the game that head linesman Phil McKinnely repeatedly called him "boy" in the game's closing minutes, a racial insult when spoken by a white person to an African-American. From the sound of things, Rolle was jawing with McKinnely, which even a veteran player such as Rolle should not do. But officials should never jaw with or insult players, either. If McKinnely did use a racial insult against Rolle, during the same game-deciding moments when the officials were favoring New England (so far, McKinnely has not commented on this), that would have been highly unprofessional and would call into question whether the officiating crew was neutral.
These things said, Baltimore has itself to blame for the loss -- or perhaps, New England has its superior line play to credit for the win.
Plus, add in that Baltimore was outcoached in this game, which has happened a lot this season. In the high-pressure final two minutes, three Ravens (Scott, Rolle and Winborne) lost their cool, while no Patriot lost his cool; that's good coaching by New England and bad coaching by Baltimore. Not only did Baltimore defensive coordinator Ryan call the strange timeout that erased what would have been the game-winning down, but New England moved 73 yards in 15 plays on its final drive, and on 12 of those 15 plays, Baltimore rushed only three. Three-man rushes can work if they are a change-up tactic; if you rush three for down after down, a good quarterback like Brady will eat your defense for lunch. In effect, the Ravens went into the prevent defense at the 3:30 mark, and it's well-established that the only thing the prevent defense prevents is punts. This bad tactical decision by Ryan was doubly vexing because New England's touchdown to tie the score at 17 in the third quarter also came against a three-man rush, so it's not as though the look was working.