FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The football glanced off the chest of wide receiver Mark Clayton, a crucial dropped pass on fourth down that would have granted the Baltimore Ravens a first down and potentially triggered a comeback victory over the New England Patriots.
Instead, the Ravens absorbed their first loss of the year as a combination of miscues and a failure to capitalize on opportunities doomed their chances during an emotional 27-21 loss Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
Standing in front of his locker stall afterward, Clayton was a standup guy about what transpired on the pivotal hitch route on fourth-and-four at the Patriots’ eight-yard line with 28 seconds remaining.
"The last play was a perfect call," said Clayton, who dropped the ball beyond the first-down marker. "I ran the route, got open and just dropped the ball. Flat out drop. It was a perfect ball. Joe put it on the money. It cost us the game.
"It hurts tremendously. It was a critical situation because you want to win the game and you want the ball and it cost us the game. To not be able to come up with it is tough.
Between three incompletions on the Ravens’ last four plays from Joe Flacco, including a near grab from Clayton on a contested end-zone shot and Derrick Mason not being able to secure a third-down throw that was slightly errant, and some controversial officiating that raised the ire of middle linebacker Ray Lewis and several other players, Baltimore (3-1) ultimately came up short against one of the top football teams in the league.
Instead of laying claim to being the best team in the NFL, the Ravens left town frustrated at an opportunity lost.
The Patriots ran out the clock to continue to remain undefeated against the Ravens with their fifth win over Baltimore in franchise history. This marks the Ravens’ first regular-season last since Dec. 14, 2008.
"I thought our guys played their hearts out, but it wasn’t good enough to win the game,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We have to take the opportunity to learn from it and become the kind of team that we’re going to be this year. We’ll see where that takes us."
The Ravens were particularly incensed about a pair of roughing the passer penalties as the officials seemed determined to do everything possible to protect New England star quarterback Tom Brady.
Both of the penalties set up touchdowns for the Patriots.
“Without going off the wall here, it’s embarrassing to the game,” Lewis said. “Brady is good enough to make his own plays, let him make the play. When you have two great teams that are going at it, let them go at it. Did that win or lose the game? No, but it got them 14 points. You don’t lose your focus. It just takes away from the game. It’s embarrassing to the league to let a defensive player play his heart out and you call that.
“A personal foul and he isn’t even touched. He’s a man. They can be hit, just like us. It’s embarrassing to even keep the momentum going like that when we go three and out and then we stop them and then you look back and see a flag or a personal foul and Tom Brady is laughing. It wasn’t no personal foul if he’s still smiling."
In the third quarter, Harbaugh was flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct.
In the first quarter with Baltimore leading 7-3 after Flacco hooked up Mason for an acrobatic 20-yard touchdown catch, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was penalized for lightly touching Brady on the side of his helmet.
“He just kind of flopped and made the ref throw the flag,” Ngata said. “I guess we can’t even hit them.”
When Suggs struck Brady in the legs lightly in the second quarter, it got the Patriots in position for Sammy Morris’ 12-yard touchdown run with the 15-yard penalty.
“Maybe next year it’ll be two-hand touch to get a sack," Suggs said.
Brady pointed at his knee before the official threw the flag, reminding them about the point of emphasis instituted by the NFL competition of committee prior to the season.
“Are you kidding me?” Brady said with a smile. “We’re holding the ball, we’re unprotected, just sitting there defenseless, so they’ve got to stay away from me. They deserve to get flagged.”
Harbaugh argued with the officials several times, but chose his words carefully after the game to avoid being fined.
“I saw it, I’m not allowed to comment on it,” Harbaugh said. “I think you guys saw it, too, and you make those judgments for yourself.”
Flacco completed 27 of 47 passes for 264 yards, two touchdowns and a 78.7 quarterback rating.
However, he was intercepted in the red zone for the first time this year.
In the second quarter with Baltimore driving, Flacco and Clayton weren’t on the same page as Flacco threw short and Clayton streaked to the end zone.
Patriots cornerback Leigh Bodden snatched the ball and dragged his feet for the interception, which was upheld by officials on an instant-replay review.
“It was a bad job by myself,” Flacco said. “We were looking for Mark and I just choked the ball and I threw it right to the guy.”
The Patriots owned the momentum immediately when kick returner Chris Carr fumbled the opening kickoff.
Three plays later, Stephen Gostkowski booted a 32-yard field goal to give the Patriots a 3-0 lead.
“They just stripped it, they did a good job,” Carr said. “Obviously they stripped the guy from Buffalo so they do a good job of that. They just made a good play.”
The Ravens immediately answered on Mason’s touchdown where he landed hard and injured his back, but stayed in the game to finish with seven catches for 88 yards.
After falling behind 17-7 at halftime, the Ravens rebounded on defense as outside linebacker Terrell Suggs chopped the football out of Brady’s hands in the third quarter with defensive end Dwan Edwards pouncing on the fumble in the end zone for a touchdown.
The score closed the gap to 17-14 and the Ravens seemed to be positioning themselves for a comeback.
However, Brady confidently marched the Patriots 79 yards on six plays for a 24-14 lead.
He connected with Pro Bowl wide receiver Randy Moss for a touchdown as Moss casually cut inside of cornerback Domonique Foxworth for a 14-yard score. Brady underthrew it as he was being hit on a blitz as Moss stepped back to catch the ball.
Now, Moss has 137 career touchdowns to rank sixth in all-time NFL history.
The Ravens didn’t fold, though.
Keyed by a 50-yard run by running back Ray Rice (11 carries, 103 yards), the Ravens scored on the ensuing drive. Flacco drilled running back Willis McGahee for a 13-yard touchdown catch as Baltimore gained on New England to trail 24-21.
After averaging 34.3 points and 430 yards of total offense to go unbeaten during their first three games, the Ravens’ offense didn’t seem to be in sync against the Patriots.
The Ravens only scored touchdowns on 2 of 4 red-zone shots.
“You have games where sometimes you’re not in rhythm,” Mason said. “We’re still capable of scoring more points. We needed it. We expect to score a point a minute. That’s the type of offense we are and we left some opportunities out there on the field.
“We need to correct some things. It’s not too farfetched for this team to go out there and put up 30 points a game. The only thing that’s going to stop us is us and the weather.”
After McGahee’s score, the Patriots engineered a 15-play drive that was vehemently contested by the Ravens.
On a fake field goal, New England tight end Chris Baker was flagged for illegal motion before catching a pass near the first-down marker.
The Ravens challenged whether it was a catch, but the original penalty was upheld.
If it had been overruled, the Ravens would have gained possession on downs.
“We were challenging whether he caught it and whether it was in bounds, and if it was a first down or not,” Harbaugh said. “So, they felt it was all three of those things.”
Referee Ron Winter explained his interpretation to a pool reporter following the game.
When asked why the illegal motion penalty didn’t override the challenge, Winter replied: “If it had been an incomplete pass, then they would have declined the penalty and they would have taken the ball at the previous spot. When we found out it was a complete pass, then the illegal motion penalty kicks in, takes it back, so they have to repeat the down. Caught the pass, good for a first down.”
Winter also explained why the play wasn’t spotted and measured prior to the challenge.
“There was no indisputable evidence to indicate that the ball was not a first down,” he said. “We looked at that to see if it was in fact a first down. We couldn’t determine that from the replay, so the ruling on the field would stand in that regard.”
McGahee was stuffed on fourth down with one yard to go on the next possession.
A measurement was called for, and the Ravens were extremely upset about the spot as well as several other spots throughout the game. The spot appeared to be somewhat questionable.
“I’m not surprised by anything, but I saw the spots and I think everyone saw the spots and I’m not allowed to criticize the officials and that’s the way it is in this league,” Harbaugh said.
Added McGahee: “It was a bad spot.”
Continuing the harangue against the officiating, free safety Ed Reed said that it was extremely frustrating to have so many calls go against them.
“You hope you only play against the other team,” Reed said. “It’s very frustrating when you’re playing your hearts out and the slightest push gives someone 15 yards and a first down. I thought this was football.
“All of us wear pads and helmets. The rules protect certain guys in this business. We want to score points and make it exciting for the fans. At the end of the day, football is exciting.”
Reed compared the officiating to the Ravens’ 2007 loss to New England where they lost their tempers at the end of the game and linebacker Bart Scott tossed a flag into the stands.
“Terrible,” said Reed in reference to the officiating. “Not to take away from anybody else’s job, but we have to be better than that. This game has evolved too much to not be precise. This is a game of inches. I swear it felt like 2007 almost.
“They don’t need no help. They’re a great team, just like we don’t need anybody or anybody to take it away from us. You hate to have to come into a game and you got to play against a team and the officials.”
The Ravens don’t have long to dwell on this loss.
They have a key AFC North encounter looming next week at home against the Cincinnati Bengals (3-1), and the surprising Bengals have already defeated the reigning Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Now, the Ravens are tied with the Bengals for first place in the division.