Heading into Sunday Night's AFC Championship rematch, both the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens sat with a record of 1-1, a surprising statistic if there ever was one. After a poor showing on the defensive side of the ball, the Pats fell to the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium 31-30 on a last-second field goal by Justin Tucker.
Without further ado, here are five things that we learned from Sunday Night's match-up.
Secondary still a major position of weakness for Patriots
You might have mistaken Ravens' quarterback Joe Flacco for a certain San Francisco 49ers legend, hall of famer Joe Montana, on Sunday. Flacco completed 28 of 39 passes -- good for an amazing 71.8 completion percentage -- for 382 yards and three touchdowns. This stat line earned the former first round draft pick a 117.7 passer rating. In total, the defense allowed the Ravens to rack up over 500 total yards of offense without once being able to sack Flacco.
After all of the offseason acquisitions and hopes that this team's defense had finally turned the corner, the Patriots still look to have the same problem that's kept them from winning their fourth Superbowl in the Bill Belichick era; a weak pass defense.
Defense still a question mark with the game on the line
What truly defines a championship football team is the ability to win on both sides of the ball. The ability to score in the clutch or get a stop with the game on the line. Superbowl winners are always able to do both. For the past three or so seasons, fans have been waiting for the Patriots' defense to meet this standard. It appears as if football fans in New England will just have to keep on waiting.
Once again, under pressure and with the game on the line, the Patriots' defense was unable to contain the opposing offense, allowing them to walk leisurely down the field on each of their last two drives to score a touchdown and then a field goal to win the football game.
Through all of the preseason prognostications and experts speaking about how much better they thought that this year's defense was when compared with that who took the field in 2011, the Patriots seem to be right back to square one. If Tom Brady doesn't throw for 400-plus yards and five scores, the Patriots will likely find themselves on the short end of the stick.
Torrey Smith is a tremendous human being
Less than 24 hours after the death of his younger brother in a tragic motorcycle accident, young Ravens' wide receiver Torrey Smith was out on the field against the Patriots. If you know anything about Smith and his story, you'd know that he helped to raise his younger siblings to help out his single mother and must have been incredibly close to his brother. After being allowed to return to his family during the day, Smith returned to M&T Bank Stadium to take part in Sunday Night Football.
Not only did Smith participate in the game, but he was a difference maker and if you ask me, the game's most valuable player. Smith caught six balls for a total of 127 yards and two touchdowns. An enormous amount of credit is due Smith for his gutsy performance on Sunday.
Is it time to give up on Devin McCourty?
Understandably, NFL teams are often reluctant to surrender players that they used a high draft choice to select. However, there comes a point where a player can simply run out of chances to succeed.
After an impressive rookie campaign in 2010, cornerback Devin McCourty had Patriots' fans drooling over the possibility of having their first legitimate shut-down defender on the outside since Ty Law's departure. Unfortunately, the 2011 season was an absolute disaster for the former Rutgers Scarlet Knight, often being looked at as the figurehead of the Patriots' secondary struggles. In three games this year, McCourty has been exploited in single coverage on multiple occasions, most notably by Titans' wide out Nate Washington in week one and Ravens' receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones just last night.
Not only was McCourty burnt in most of his one-on-one situations on Sunday against the Ravens, but he also committed an ill-advised holding penalty with just five minutes to play in the game that gave Baltimore a first down on what would have been 3rd-and-14 from inside their own 10-yard-line. He also dropped a couple of easy interceptions early in the fourth quarter that would have set up Brady and the offense inside Baltimore territory with a nine-point lead in tow. If you'd like to go even deeper into this, it was McCourty whose poor tackling fundamentals led to Dennis Pitta's first-half touchdown catch. If the Patriots aren't ready to give up on no. 32 just yet, it is most certainly time for them to severely diminish his playing time. Currently, I can't think of a single reason to keep putting him back on the field.
Replacement officials seriously damaging integrity of the game
Over 200 yards in penalties in a nationally televised game between two of the best football teams in the world. A ten-minute delay for a two-yard change of field position. Defensive holding calls that revived drives on both sides of the ball with just a handful of minutes left on the clock. Simply put, absolute chaos ensued in Baltimore in Sunday during the Patriots vs Ravens match-up.
Perhaps worst of all was the overwhelming arrogance shown by the history teachers, real estate agents and supermarket cashiers -- or, Foot Locker employees, as Brandon Spikes would suggest [warning: vulgar language] -- that have been put in charge of overseeing the world's most popular professional sport. After whistling John Harbaugh for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty late in the fourth quarter, the sideline official wouldn't even look look at the Ravens' head coach, never mind offer an explanation for the call. Then, another referee wouldn't even stop to look at Bill Belichick after the game when his attention was requested.
If Sunday's performance from the replacement refs isn't enough to convince the NFL to get a deal done with the official's union, then I'm not sure anything will.