Ravens Fight Through The Tears, Top Patriots, 31-30
TORREY SMITH PLAYS BIG GAME WITH HEAVY HEART
By Joe Platania
(Look for Ravens Report's extensive "Leftovers," our usual postgame notebook, Monday morning.)
M&T BANK STADIUM, BALTIMORE -- John Harbaugh has ridden the merry-go-round known as the "circle of life" quite often during his relatively short time in Baltimore.
On two occasions, he has left training camp to pay final respects to fallen former colleagues such as Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson and Garrett Reid, son of Eagles head coach Andy Reid.
The head coach was also among those at the bedside of Arthur B. Modell, the Ravens' former majority owner, before he passed of natural causes earlier this month at age 87.
One year ago Sunday, Harbaugh broke the news to a stunned media corps that ex-Ravens tackle Orlando Brown was found dead at the age of 40 from diabetic complications.
And on this Sunday -- when Harbaugh would have been celebrating his 50th birthday -- he and the team awoke to the news that 19-year-old Tevin Chris Jones, younger brother of Ravens wideout and ex-Maryland star Torrey Smith, had passed away in a motorcycle accident in Virginia.
But despite the Ravens' on-field problems -- an inconsistent defense and the lack of a pass rush, among others -- a sign that this could be a special season came in the form of Smith's 127-yard, six-catch, two-touchdown performance during the Ravens' 31-30 win against the New England Patriots before 71,269 happy fans and a national-TV audience.
Smith's final reception was a 5-yard leaping touchdown catch with 4:01 remaining, which capped a no-huddle 92-yard drive and cut New England's lead to two, 30-28.
A porous Ravens defense, which committed several penalties, allowed more than 31 minutes of possession and seven third-down conversions, then got a big stop when a Paul Kruger rush forced a rushed Tom Brady to throw an incomplete pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski (21 yards, two catches).
Joe Flacco (28-for-39, 382 yards, three touchdowns, interception, no sacks, 117.7 rating) took it from there, directing an offense that seemed just as effective as the Pats' for most of the game.
Two passes to Dennis Pitta (50 yards, five catches, touchdown), a 24-yarder to Jacoby Jones and a pass-interference call on a 27-yard try to Jones set up Justin Tucker's game-winning 27-yard field goal. It skimmed just inside the right goal post, a sort of reversal from the Billy Cundiff kick that was wide left in Foxborough, Mass., during the AFC Championship Game in January.
The win, during a game that had five lead changes, gave the Ravens (2-1) their first-ever regular-season victory against the Patriots, who are 1-2 for the first time since 2001 and have a losing record for the first time since losing the 2003 opener, snapping a span of 145 straight weeks with a winning record.
Baltimore has now beaten every team in the league at least once. But Smith, playing with a heavy heart, beat odds that were a lot longer.
"I didn't know until 4 [o'clock] that I was playing," he said. "I had about an hour of sleep. Emotionally, I wasn't sure how I'd hold up.
"This is new territory for me. I've never had to deal with a death in the family. ... I said a quiet prayer [when I scored]. When you play with a heavy heart, you play for that person."
Harbaugh was just as reflective, saying: "God works in beautiful, wonderful, mysterious ways. It's not about wins and losses. It's about what people can accomplish."
The Ravens picked up their 12th consecutive home victory and 14th straight win after a defeat by rallying from nine points down during the fourth quarter. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had a 110-5 career record when leading by nine or more during the final period.
Belichick attempted to grab one of the officials as they ran off the field, thinking Tucker's winning kick was wide right.
"It looked close," Belichick said. "... I'm just trying to coach the game."
But Smith was having perhaps the most trying day of all.
NO STOPS, AND
MISTAKES TO BOOT
Smith, who traveled to Virginia Sunday morning to be with his family before returning during the late afternoon, was the key to a third-quarter drive that lasted eight plays and covered 80 yards as the Ravens tried to recover from a six-point halftime deficit.
A pass down the middle for Anquan Boldin (48 yards, four catches) was incomplete, but after a Patriots holding penalty, Smith -- who Flacco targeted a team-high 10 times -- caught an 11-yard Flacco aerial for a first down at the 39.
Another deep ball for Jacoby Jones (86 yards, three catches) could have put the Ravens inside the Pats' 10, but the ex-Houston Texans receiver had one foot out of bounds. It was up to Smith again, and his catch-and-run got 32 yards to the 7.
From there, Ray Rice (101 yards, 20 rushes, touchdown; 49 yards, five catches) ran a stretch play to the left -- a Jim Caldwell fingerprint, given the quarterback coach's ties to the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis offense that often used such a play -- for a touchdown and a 21-20 Baltimore edge, the game's third lead change, barely 3.5 minutes into the third quarter.
But even though the offense was providing plenty of excitement -- during the first game in team history that featured at least three scoring drives of 80 or more yards -- the leaky defense assured the fourth lead swap was not long in coming.
Taking advantage of the Ravens' seeming inability to get stops, Brady directed a 12-play, 80-yard drive, which was aided by a roughing penalty against strong safety Bernard Pollard, a new and loud voice representing the Ravens' defense.
It's a defense that is suffering greatly against the run (ranked 18th) and overall (27th) to an extent not seen since the franchise's early days in Baltimore. Pats running back Danny Woodhead drove that point home with two straight runs from the 7 that ended up in the end zone to put the visitors back on top, 27-21.
On a night when his teammates were charged with emotionally picking him up, Smith rescued them instead with a 38-yard catch down the left sideline to the Patriots' 47.
But a holding call on right guard Marshal Yanda -- trying to block monstrous nose tackle Vince Wilfork, a dominant force during last year's AFC title game -- helped stall the drive. Yanda, a Pro Bowl selectee, was called for three penalties during the game.
As efficient at the New England offense was, it did get some help from an overaggressive Ravens defense.
One play after a Jimmy Smith holding penalty gave the visitors a first down, Ed Reed's hit on wideout Deion Branch jarred the ball loose, but a 15-yard penalty was called on the play. Second-year back Stevan Ridley then gashed the Ravens for 14 yards to the 4.
That led to Stephen Gostkowski's third field goal of the night, a 20-yarder, which stretched the lead to nine early during the fourth quarter, forcing the Ravens to get two scores to win.
And with the Ravens' new-look offense doing well, but not quite as consistently as the Patriots', it would be a tall task.
BRADY, DEFENSE PUT
PATS ON TOP
When Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (28-for-41, 335 yards, touchdown, two sacks, 101.2 rating) was a young football fan in California, he was an ardent admirer of San Francisco 49ers legend Joe Montana. He was in the Candlestick Park stands the day Montana found Dwight Clark for "The Catch" that won the 1981 NFC Championship Game.
One of the best ways to slow Montana down, if not stop him, was to drop more people back in coverage, and that's how the Ravens approached Brady early during Sunday's game.
But Brady got New England into a good tempo by completing eight of 12 first-quarter passes and running 24 plays to the Ravens' 9 while getting six first downs to the Ravens' zero. The visitors outgained Baltimore by a 143-21 bulge in taking early control of the game, scoring the most first-quarter points (13) against the Ravens in Baltimore during the Harbaugh era.
Brady countered the Ravens' strategy by firing quickly on shorter routes, including a 12-yard pass to Brandon Lloyd (108 yards, team-high nine catches), which seemingly got the Patriots going right away. But on third-and-19, linebacker Paul Kruger covered Gronkowski so well, Dannell Ellerbe (eight tackles, 1.5 sacks, two quarterback hits) was able to sack Brady and end the drive.
The Ravens' no-huddle offense reappeared, but went three-and-out near midfield. Brady had difficult field position to deal with, but when Lardarius Webb guessed that an inside run was coming, wideout Wes Welker (142 yards, eight catches) raced past safety Ed Reed and hauled in a 59-yard pass down the left sideline to the Baltimore 20.
Reed made up for that play when Brady then tried to hit a slanting Julian Edelman in the end zone. Reed blasted the diminutive receiver with a hard hit to prevent the touchdown, but Stephen Gostkowski's 37-yard field goal put the Patriots on the board first.
After Flacco's earlier handoffs to Rice, he tried to open up the play-action pass, but Pats safety Steve Gregory anticipated a pass to Dennis Pitta and picked it off, running it back 36 yards to the Ravens' 6.
Gregory was one of several players acquired to upgrade the Pats' pass defense, which is now ranked seventh in the league after being near the bottom for nearly the entire 2011 campaign.
Three plays after the pickoff, rookie running back Brandon Bolden ran behind Mankins -- who blocked Ellerbe off the play -- and an overloaded left side for a 2-yard touchdown and a 10-0 Patriots lead barely eight minutes into the game.
Flacco did not get picked off on his next series, but two passes to Ed Dickson didn't get the necessary yardage thanks to the Pats' tight coverages, and another three-and-out resulted.
Even though Brady's offense was backed up inside its own red zone thanks to a punt-return penalty, it was armed with 10-year veteran Lloyd, who had burned the Ravens for a pair of touchdowns during an earlier meeting. Lloyd caught an 11-yard third-down pass and a 22-yard sideline pass as he leaped over Cary Williams, who is 2 inches taller.
Haloti Ngata (nine tackles, half-sack) was then flagged for a post-whistle roughing penalty against Mankins, pushing the Patriots 15 yards deeper. Edelman (28 yards, four catches, touchdown) then stopped short against Williams on a third-and-11 route for a catch inside the 10, but was flagged for offensive interference.
But Welker gained 9 yards on a quick hitch route, and Gostkowski capped the Pats' dominant quarter with a 49-yard field goal to extend the lead to 13-0.
A SCORE FOR TORREY ...
For a third straight week, the Ravens were having trouble getting a passing game established with their wideouts, so it was up to the backs to get the team going during the second quarter. A 13-play, 82-yard drive resulted as Baltimore got on the board.
Rice scooted around right end for a 19-yard gain, which was wiped out because of a holding call on Boldlin. Bernard Pierce made up for that with a 10-yard checkdown catch, then plowing over the right side for seven more.
Fullback Vonta Leach caught a short right-side pass to get the team over midfield for the first time before Boldin -- who had caught only six passes during the season's first two games -- dove for the first-down marker at the Pats' 39.
A prolonged delay and a Ravens replay challenge of the ball spot resulted in a first down at the 38. Two more Rice runs, one on a fine clearout block by new left guard Ramon Harewood, gained 13 yards to the 25.
That set up a poignant moment for the still-grieving Smith, who could be seen wiping away tears on the bench just before kickoff.
His out-and-up move on Pats cornerback and Prince Georges County native Kyle Arrington got him free, and his subsequent leap completed the 25-yard touchdown. Harbaugh and several teammates embraced him after the score, which was a pivotal moment for the Ravens.
"I didn't want to hurt my team [by not playing]," Smith said. "I'm glad I came back up here. My teammates helped me out a lot."
Even though they were outgained during the second quarter, 183-98, in the same way the Ravens were outdistanced during the first, the Patriots tried to answer back while featuring Edelman, who has been compared to a younger Welker. He took an end-around for a short gain, then caught a 15-yard pass near midfield.
But rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw made perhaps his best play as a Raven so far, sniffing out a direct snap to Woodhead, who then handed the ball to Edelman. Upshaw buried the receiver for a 13-yard loss.
The Ravens were then backed up at their own 8 after a punt, but the offense went back to work and tried to get a few more targets involved in what turned out to be a go-ahead, 10-play, 92-yard drive.
After Flacco scrambled for a first down deep in his own territory, he zipped a pass over the middle to Jones, who caught the ball in a soft spot in the Pats' zone at the Ravens' 40 and carried it all the way to the Pats' 37 to complete a 41-yard gain, his longest of the year.
On third-and-4 from the 20, Flacco found Pitta -- his top 2012 target, with 18 of his 73 completions -- on the right sideline. He hurdled Gregory and blew past McCourty to get into the end zone and give the Ravens a one-point lead. But, thanks in part to Brady's 28-yard pass to Welker, New England drove 81 yards in nine plays and reassumed the lead, 20-14, on a 7-yard touchdown to Edelman.
The game's seesaw nature continued all night, but in the wake of a tearful day, it couldn't compete with the constant circle of life.
Posted Sept. 24, 2012