- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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What it means: The AFC title game was the end of the road for the Patriots. Quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick were 3-0 in this round at home, but Baltimore did a good job of controlling the pace of the game, then pulling away in the fourth quarter with timely plays to advance to the Super Bowl. New England was swept by the Ravens in two meetings this season. Brady also fell short of his goal of a sixth Super Bowl appearance. That would have set a record for a starting quarterback. Time is running out for Brady to win another championship. He will be 36 at the start of next season.
Secondary struggles: The Patriots suffered a huge injury in the first quarter and never recovered. New England No. 1 cornerback Aqib Talib strained his hamstring and was knocked out of the game. Talib is New England's best cover corner, and his absence changed the way the team played defense. Without Talib, Baltimore’s offense took advantage and made plays against rookie corner Alfonzo Dennard and inconsistent teammate Kyle Arrington. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had another good outing. He threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns against New England's poor secondary.
No filling in for Gronkowski: The Patriots needed other players to step up for injured Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski. New England got good contributions from tight end Aaron Hernandez (nine catches) and receivers Brandon Lloyd (seven catches) and Wes Welker (eight catches), but it wasn't enough. None of these players was able to make the big plays, especially to get in the end zone. Welker had a big drop on third down that had a chance to change the momentum of the game. New England's 13 points was its lowest total of the season.
Other injuries: In addition to Talib, the Patriots had key injuries to starting running back Stevan Ridley and defensive tackle Kyle Love. Ridley suffered a concussion after taking a devastating hit by Ravens safety Bernard Pollard. Love injured his knee in the first quarter and didn't return.
What’s next: The Patriots' season is over. New England will now enter the offseason trying to improve in several areas. The Patriots are in pretty good shape with the cap and in free agency. The biggest question is: What will they do with pending free agents Welker and Talib?