By: Bob George/
January 21, 2013

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Maybe the worst thing is that if something has never happened, and then it does happen, you're left with a feeling of astonishment, and perhaps an unclear understanding of what just happened.

Such was the case on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots suffered a few firsts in franchise history, but the worst thing that happened was that the Baltimore Ravens get to go to the Super Bowl while the Patriots do not. While the rest of the USA celebrates a brotherly battle in the Super Bowl, Patriot Nation is left wondering how the Patriots could lose the AFC Championship Game, and how they could lose it the way they did.

Much has been made about the Talib Hammy, the Welker Drop, and the Pollard Hit Part IV. Others think that the better team did win. But still others think that the Patriots dropped the ball and let what should have been at least a shot at the world championship go down the drain. The Ravens may have been bent on revenge from last year, as reflected in some of their postgame rants, but the bottom line is that the Patriots had a won game on their hands that they let slip away, and despite the focus of the Patriots now turning to the draft, what went wrong won't really be fixed by the draft other than perhaps cornerback depth.

So many times over the years opponents have accused the Patriots of not doing anything special in victory, but rather what that team didn't do themselves. In a postgame interview following Super Bowl XXXVI, Marshall Faulk said much the same thing, that it really wasn't about what the Patriots did that won the game. Film breakdowns would prove Faulk wrong, in that the Patriots did do various things on defense to slow down the Rams' offense. But in Sunday night's AFC Championship, it really may be about what the Patriots didn't do rather than what the Ravens did do.

The game for the Patriots was really lost in the first half. Losing Aqib Talib was critical, make no mistake, but the Ravens wouldn't exploit that loss until the third quarter. What really did the Patriots in was conservative play calling and horrid clock management at the end of the half.

Baltimore was held to one touchdown in the first half, and punted the other four drives. Their starting field position was their own 13, 10, 8, 10 and 14. New England was killing the Ravens in the battle of field position. But out of their six offensive possessions, only three of them made it to the Red Area, and twice they came away with field goals.

Beginning with their second offensive possession, the Patriots began at their own 21 and drove to the Baltimore 20 thanks largely to two passes to Brandon Lloyd for a combined 29 yards. On first down, Stevan Ridley ran for two yards, then Aaron Hernandez ran an end around for six yards to the Ravens' 12. On third down and two, Ridley ran off right tackle but was stuffed for no gain, forcing a chip shot field goal. If this is the play the Patriots really wanted, Danny Woodhead was a better option than Ridley, who is better on third down and more slippery than Ridley, who can gain bigger chunks of yards between the 20s. Otherwise, Tom Brady might have looked at Wes Welker as option one and Hernandez or Lloyd as option two.

The next drive began at the Patriot 33. An unnecessary roughness penalty on Ray Lewis put the Patriots at the Baltimore 36. A one-yard gain by Shane Vereen was sandwiched between incomplete passes to Hernandez and Lloyd. Facing fourth down and nine at the Baltimore 35, Bill Belichick opted to punt. Up to this point, the Ravens had run 12 offensive plays for 35 net yards and had punted each time. Not wanting to try a 53-yard field goal into the wind is a no-brainer. Going for it was low risk and better strategy, with the Ravens at worst getting the ball at the 35, something they could do after a kickoff. But Belichick punted instead. Baltimore punted the ball back to the Patriots, and they took over at their 47. An eight-yard pass to Hernandez was sandwiched between incomplete passes to Vereen and Lloyd (sound familiar?), and the Ravens got the ball back after a punt from the Baltimore 45. Just like the previous drive, the Patriots failed to go for it, and the Ravens got a touchdown anyway, driving 90 yards instead of 55.

The Patriots did answer with what would be their only touchdown drive of the game. They got the ball right back with 2:32 left in the half and the ball at the Ravens' 43, more indication of how much better field position they had than Baltimore. They were at the Baltimore 27 with 34 seconds left when the two plays that spelled doom for the Patriots happened. Brady hit Hernandez in the right flat for 17 yards. But he failed to get out of bounds, and the Patriots had to spend their second timeout. On the next play, Brady scrambled to the seven-yard line and slid, but he slid in bounds and the clock continued to run.

Inexplicably, Brady tried to hustle his team up to the line of scrimmage to run one quick play before a field goal attempt and save the timeout. The clock ran down to four seconds before the final timeout was called, and the Patriots went into the locker room up 13-7 after a chip shot field goal. Why Brady didn't simply call time after he slid is something nobody can figure out. Or why he simply didn't scramble out of bounds. Those are plays Brady makes in his sleep. This sort of bonehead clock management doesn't usually happen to the Patriots.

Take away the two punts for a second. Down 21-7, might the Ravens have played the second half differently? Or, might the Patriots have played things differently with a two-touchdown lead instead of only a six-point lead? Once Baltimore offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell finally woke up and started calling for more passes, the Ravens went off on a 21-0 run. But if the Patriots were up 21-7, or maybe even 24-7, might Baltimore have gone into a panic mode and called for a bunch of Denver bombs to Torrey Smith? Conversely, might the Patriots have run the ball more in the second half to manage the game better and eat up clock? By the time the fourth quarter had set in, might the Ravens, given how hard they had to play last week at Denver, been too tired to stop the run?

Welker had a bad drop and Ridley got clobbered and coughed up the game-sealing fumble (which really should have been ruled down by contact and not a fumble), but the game was lost by then. This is a classic case when you have a team you are superior to on paper, let them hang around when you otherwise should be blowing them out, and then watching them upset you right out of a Super Bowl berth. Baltimore's opportunistic and brutally tough defense won out in the end, allowing Joe Flacco to have easy pickings with a depleted Patriot defense, and that is why they are heading to New Orleans and not the Patriots.

So, for the first time in franchise history, the Patriots lose an AFC Championship Game at home. For the first time in Gillette Stadium history, the Patriots lose after leading at halftime. And perhaps the most saddening element of all is that Lewis' career didn't end, but instead Gil Santos' career did.

The Patriots are who they are, just not all the time. But it was the worst possible time for the Patriots to be unpatriotic.