Somewhere in the splendor of a fall day in New England, the magic of the moment dissipated and the Ravens let a hard-earned opportunity slip away. Seven seconds into the fourth quarter Sunday, attacking at every turn, they had a well-deserved 10-point lead over the Patriots.
Then, in the next 28 minutes of scoreboard clock time, the Ravens backpedaled to a 23-20 overtime loss. Repercussions are still bubbling in Baltimore.
Some critics think conservatism reared its ugly head in Gillette Stadium. Others say the quarterback was too restricted by play calls. Lost in the rush to judgment is the fact the defense couldn't get off the field in the fourth quarter, only to recover nicely in overtime.
On Thursday, three days before the Ravens meet the Buffalo Bills, the Ravens were still wading through the residue of the wrenching defeat. And when offensive coordinator Cam Cameron met reporters, we learned that conservatism truly is in the eye of the beholder.
"You know, everybody has a view of that," Cameron said at his weekly media session. "And sometimes, plays, the way they turn out, can look conservative. … There were some execution issues going on, but I know the structure of the play called — and it's an aggressive play call — but for whatever reason, it looked conservative.
"And I think I learned this back with LaDainian [Tomlinson]: Handing the ball to Ray Rice is not conservative, because we've all seen that thing run right out of the stadium."
A week after Rice battered the Denver Broncos for 133 rush yards, he gained 126 scrimmage yards against the Patriots. But in three non-threatening offensive series in overtime, Rice was able to generate just 27 yards, getting the ball on eight of 13 plays.
The Patriots were determined not to let Rice beat them. The Ravens couldn't — or wouldn't —- take advantage.
Asked to address the issue of conservatism this week, quarterback Joe Flacco took the high road: "I'm the quarterback, and we've got to make everything successful no matter how people feel about it. We didn't execute good enough to get the game won. That's it."
Execution aside, the Ravens did not attempt to get the ball down field against New England's two-deep zone after getting a 10-point lead, except for an 18-yard completion to Anquan Boldin in the fourth quarter and an incomplete throw to Todd Heap in overtime. On a day when Flacco outplayed Tom Brady for three quarters and threw for a total of 285 yards, he threw for only 59 — and two first downs — in the last 28 minutes of the game.
Wide receiver Derrick Mason elected to credit Brady and the Patriots rather than criticize the play-calling.
"You can say we were conservative all you want to, but you can't take away what New England did," Mason said. "We still tried to do some things in the passing game as well as the running game."
What the Patriots were able to do in the fourth quarter was control the clock — their time of possession was 11:26 to Baltimore's 3:34 — and wear down the Ravens' defense. They had scoring drives of 60 and 80 yards to force overtime. From 20-10, the Ravens were outgained by the Patriots in yards (185-81) and first downs (12-3).
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said the Patriots were successful with personnel groupings they drew up during their bye week, and also that the hurry-up and no-huddle offenses taxed the Ravens' defense.
It didn't help that the Ravens lost safety Tom Zbikowski to a heel injury late in the third quarter. Brady was able to maneuver down the field by passing against the Ravens' big men and running against the depleted nickel and sub packages. Reserve running back Danny Woodhead had runs of 14 and 12 yards, and a reception for 19.
"We struggled with it," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "I was actually pretty worried going into the overtime because we hadn't played well in the fourth quarter and we'd been playing a lot of snaps. And I was really worried about, 'Are they going to do this in overtime?' And then we got three stops of them."
The Ravens produced only 48 total yards in overtime and crossed midfield once, getting to the Patriots' 48.
Cameron denied a reported meeting with Flacco after the loss.
"There was no big meeting with me and Joe," Cameron said. "There was a conversation between me and Joe after every game, like there always is. And I'll tell you exactly what I said. I said, 'Joe' – because I believe this — I said, "Joe, I could've helped you better. I could've helped you better at times in that game.' That's my job. … and Joe said to me, "I could have done a better job.' And that's the relationship that you have with your quarterback."
Cameron also said the Ravens have not told Flacco where to throw the ball, despite reports to the contrary this week.
"That has not been done," he said. "We don't do that. Joe knows how to read defenses. He knows he has multiple options."
But Cameron and coach John Harbaugh conceded this week that Flacco and the offense has to do better against two-deep zone coverage.
"We had downfield routes called against it," Harbaugh said. "The checkdown [to Rice] is always really good against that if the downfield routes don't express themselves. And we had runs called against it, which you like against a three-man rush — especially some draws.
"So I don't think there was anything conservative about it in that sense. I don't think we executed it. I don't think we did a good enough job as coaches explaining to our players exactly how to attack it."
Said Cameron: "We don't want to be conservative. … We want to be aggressive and smart, and then execute at the same time."