Sunday night’s trip to Baltimore to take on the Lamar Jackson-led Ravens was billed as the Patriots’ first true test of the season, especially for New England’s dominant defense that had put up historic numbers against lackluster competition through the 8-0 start to the year.
Simply put, Bill Belichick’s team, most notably the defense, failed the test in the 37-20 loss.
In some ways, it was beaten at its own game.
Baltimore got off to a fast start on both sides of the ball. The Ravens, as Devin McCourty put it, “controlled” the game and played it on their terms thanks to a pair of long opening drives sandwiched around a quick three-and-out by the defense. The home team led 10-0 after the first quarter in which Tom Brady’s offense barely held the ball for two minutes.
“We knew they had one of the best running attacks in the NFL this year, and they were able to really run the ball,” McCourty said of the Ravens churning out 210 rushing yards on 41 attempts, both by far season highs by a Patriots opponent. “I think because we struggled stopping the run it pretty much gave them control of the game – possession, down and distance. I think they got to be comfortable all game. For the majority of the game I think they were able to play it on their terms.”
So in some ways, the bully got bullied in this one.
Sure, New England cut the game to 17-13 at halftime and 24-20 in the third quarter.
But thanks to Julian Edelman’s fumble that was returned 70-yards by Marlon Humphrey for a touchdown to swing momentum on New England’s opening drive of the second half, the visitors were always playing catch-up.
The impressive long opening drive, the complementary action and the key turnover swaying the game? To some degree this was the typical script of a 2019 Patriots game, only with an unfortunate role reversal for New England.
After what McCourty called a “smooth ride” to open the season -- an eight-game span in which New England took advantage of overmatched opponents led by quarterbacks who wilted in the face of the defending Super Bowl champions – the Patriots found themselves is a real fight on the road on Sunday night and left Baltimore a physically if not emotionally defeated team.
Suddenly all the talk of an undefeated season buoyed by a defense that’s comparable to some of the most dominant in NFL history has dissipated thanks to Jackson and a John Harbaugh-coached team that lived up to the reputation it’s built over the years of not being spooked by playing the Patriots.
So what now?
Heading into the bye week New England has extra time to clean up the run defense that’s been a quiet problem for weeks dating back to the Week 4 win in Buffalo, to focus on offensive red zone struggles that Brady has been lamenting all season long and to work to be a better team as the schedule toughens with upcoming games against playoff-caliber competition from the Eagles, Cowboys, Texans and Chiefs.
“We’ll see,” Belichick replied when asked how he thought his team would respond to defeat, before breaking out his typical post-loss cliché for the first time this fall. “In the end we just have to coach better and play better.”
“We just have to be better. We will be. This is a great learning experience,” Duron Harmon said.
The Patriots failed their test, everyone can agree on that. But all is not lost. They remain the top team in the AFC heading into a bye week with plenty of time to figure things out.
But after a dreamy start, reality has set in. New England wasn’t as good as the numbers it was putting up against inferior competition. Allowing 7 points a game wasn’t sustainable. Holding opponents to 15-percent on third down conversions isn’t realistic over the modern 16-game slate.
Now the opposites is true. New England obviously isn’t as bad as the ugly penalties, key turnovers and porous run defense that led to its unsettling loss in Baltimore.
There certainly aren't a lot of reasons to question whether the squad is good enough to bounce back from its first loss. Only time will tell.
“Losses always find a way to recalibrate how you see yourself,” Brady concluded. “We obviously have a lot of work to do. It just wasn’t obviously good enough. You get beat by 17 points, that’s not what we’re all about.”
At least that’s the hope inside the Patriots locker room that’s dealing with defeat for the first time after failing its first real test.
“We’ll see. We gotta get back to work and figure it out,” McCourty added. “It’s not the first game we’ve ever lost. We lost the game. Get back to work. Figure it out. And go play better next time you are out there.”