FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Ray Rice flexed his biceps in the end zone, a triumphant moment of afterglow following his magnificent dash for a touchdown that stunned and silenced the crowd at frigid Gillette Stadium.
Toppling the dynastic New England Patriots from their throne behind a bruising running game spearheaded by Rice and an intimidating, opportunistic defense that befuddled the great Tom Brady into an uncharacteristic three interceptions, the Baltimore Ravens steamrolled the AFC East champions.
The sixth-seeded Ravens’ 33-14 AFC wild-card upset victory Sunday was launched by building a commanding 24-0 advantage in the first quarter, a power move triggered by Rice scampering a career-high 83 yards for a touchdown on the first offensive play of the game.
It marks the first win by any team over New England here this season, the first loss by Brady in any of his previous home playoff games and his first loss at home since Nov. 12, 2006 and the first win by the Ravens over the Patriots in six tries. It’s the first home playoff loss by the Patriots during the ultra-successful tenure of coach Bill Belichick and Brady, a streak that dates back to Dec. 31, 1978.
“When you beat a team like the Patriots, it sets a high precedent for any Ravens team,” said Rice, who gained 159 yards on 22 carries with two scores. “We will always remember this win. The ultimate goal is the Super Bowl. Beating them up here really puts us toward that goal.”
By defeating the Patriots, who won three Super Bowls as the most dominant franchise of the past decade, the Ravens (10-7) propelled themselves into an AFC divisional round rematch Saturday night against the top-seeded Indianapolis Colts. Of course, the Colts (14-2) are the winningest NFL team of the past decade.
Although the win wasn’t predicted around the league, the Ravens seemed to expect the outcome.
“I’m not surprised from this football team and what they’ve been through this year and the challenges they’ve fought through and what they’ve made of themselves,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “It was a tremendous victory against a great opponent. We don’t get shocked. I think it’s real meaningful for the organization.”
It only took scant minutes for the Ravens to establish that they were more physical, more intense and more precise than the Patriots.
Rice hesitated for a second to allow his blocking to clear a path. Then, he busted through the middle of the line through a huge gap created by offensive guards Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda and center Matt Birk as he moved hefty nose guard Vince Wilfork out of the way.
Rice accelerated upfield, refusing to allow safety Brandon Meriweather to catch him.
It was Baltimore 7, New England 0 with 17 seconds elapsed.
“I wanted to be the guy to start this game off fast,” Rice said. “I wanted to be the guy to say, ‘This is going to be a fast-tempo game.’ We want the other team to play catch-up to us.
“I made that first guy miss and after that it was a foot race. I keep telling the guys, for the first 40 yards, I am one of the fastest guys. You’ve got to stretch that defense, and once you hit it, you got to go.”
The Ravens practiced this play a lot during the week with fullback Le’Ron McClain engaging in misdirection to his right with Rice running left away from his powerful lead blocker.
And Rice told his teammates during warmup drills that he was going to hit a long one Sunday.
“Ray called his shot,” running back Willis McGahee said. “He said he was going to bust it open and set the tone.”
The Ravens weren’t done running roughshod over a proud New England team, rushing for 234 yards and four touchdowns on 52 carries.
“I think we were more ready to play emotionally than they were,” defensive end Trevor Pryce said. “Psychologically, we were ready to play. After that first run, you could tell it was going to happen. It’s hard to overcome that. It was a psyche-killer.”
And the defense managed to accomplish the unthinkable, throttling Brady into three turnovers during the Patriots’ opening four series.
Not flagged for roughing the passer this time unlike their 27-21 loss earlier this season where two penalties extended touchdown drives, the Ravens served notice immediately that they were rendering the NFL Comeback Player of the Year into an ordinary quarterback on this day.
Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs burst past offensive tackle Matt Light to sack Brady on the Patriots’ third play from scrimmage, stripping Brady from behind and recovering the fumble.
It mirrored Suggs’ forced fumble that Dwan Edwards recovered for a touchdown on Oct. 4.
“We got him a little bit,” Suggs said. “We didn’t want him comfortable. We wanted to frenzy him.”
Working from the Patriots’ 17-yard line after the turnover, the Ravens bullied their way into another touchdown as they ran the ball five times in a row to cap the drive with a one-yard McClain touchdown plunge where massive defensive tackle Haloti Ngata lined up as a blocking tight end.
Leading 14-0, the Ravens had run just six plays. And all of them were runs for precisely 100 yards total and two touchdowns.
Despite a freezing temperature of 20 degrees and a wind chill of eight degrees, the Ravens were red-hot.
“I wouldn’t call it revenge,” wide receiver Derrick Mason said. “I would call it unfinished business. We understand that this was a team capable of being beaten. I don’t think anyone was intimidated by the New England Patriots or their mystique.”
Later in the first quarter, cornerback Chris Carr intercepted a Brady pass intended for wide receiver Sam Aiken.
On the ensuing drive, the Ravens threw just one pass as hobbled quarterback Joe Flacco was severely limited due to a right hip contusion that’s also affecting his quadriceps.
Even with Flacco ailing as he completed just 4 of 10 passes for 34 yards and one interception, the offense kept rolling.
Rice scored his second touchdown from one yard out off left guard for a 21-0 lead.
Continuing the trend of exploiting Brady, free safety Ed Reed picked him off on a deep ball and returned it 25 yards before lateraling it to Dawan Landry.
Landry’s return down to the Patriots’ nine-yard line preceded Billy Cundiff’s 27-yard field goal for a 24-0 lead, tying for the most points in the first quarter in NFL playoff history since 1991.
It ranks second for the most points in any quarter scored during that span with the Dallas Cowboys’ 27-point outburst during the second quarter Saturday against the Philadelphia Eagles marking the most points scored in a playoff game over the past 20 years.
The Ravens definitely didn’t behave like a team that was concerned about the Patriots’ superior pedigree.
“Everyone expected to win,” Carr said. “We feel like we have more talent than this team. We knew that if we played like we are capable of that we were going to win.. We expected to win, and it showed.
“I think if you get caught up in the whole tradition and Tom Brady in the playoffs, it can get a little overwhelming. The more we watched film, we were like: ‘We’re better than this team.’”
The Ravens contained star wide receiver Randy Moss, limiting him to five receptions for 48 yards.
And they withstood the Patriots’ attempt to rally back into the game as Brady ended the shutout in the second quarter with a six-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Julian Edelman, the replacement for injured standout Wes Welker.
It got so bad early in the game, though, that the Patriots’ fans turned against them with a loud chorus of boos.
“I’d have been booing us, too, the way we played,” Brady said. “Playing the way we played, we weren’t going to beat anybody.”
After halftime, Brady tossed his third interception as Landry returned it 42 yards to lead to a 23-yard Cundiff field goal.
Later in the third quarter, Brady ran the no-huddle offense to close the gap to 27-14 as he found Edelman again from one yard out for a touchdown.
Displaying his competitive mettle in the fourth quarter, Flacco managed to scramble for a key first down on third-and-seven, stretching the football out over the first down marker. And the referees reversed their call that he was short after a Baltimore instant-replay challenge.
“The thing is that I thought I had the first down guaranteed even when they went back and spotted it,” Flacco said. “We got the first down and that was the important thing and we extended the drive. That was big for us.”
The first down led to McGahee’s three-yard touchdown run behind left tackle Jared Gaither to put the game away.
The Ravens closed the Patriots out despite Brady’s efforts in the no-huddle as the defense held New England to 218 yards of total offense.
When former Patriots wide receiver Kelley Washington ran off the field, he shouted, “End of an era,” in reference to New England with defensive back Corey Ivy gloating a bit by saying, “Exit physicals tomorrow.”
Now, the Ravens are looking to return to the AFC championship game for the second year in a row if they can get past the Colts after losing their seventh game in a row to them during a 17-15 defeat earlier this season at Baltimore.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Harbaugh said. “We can’t wait. It will be Saturday night. The Colts game, we’ll be here, right on time.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.