BALTIMORE -- Let's look past what many will be focusing on from the New England Patriots' 31-30 loss to the Baltimore Ravens -- the spotty performance of replacement officials -- and focus on the bottom-line performance of the Patriots' defense.
Captain Vince Wilfork got right to the point.
"The offense played their tails off and we just left them out to dry," an emotional Wilfork said in a somber postgame locker room.
Yes, it was a step back for the defense that looked so promising in the first two weeks of the season. The Patriots led 30-21 with 7:29 remaining in the fourth quarter, but the Ravens drove 92 yards for a touchdown. Then, after New England couldn't run out the clock on offense, Baltimore took it 70 yards to set up the game-winning 27-yard field goal.
That's part of what had Wilfork, who ripped off his helmet at the end of the game and charged at an official in hopes he would review the final field goal (which was close to the right upright), so disappointed. The defense had its chance and it didn't deliver.
"We didn't do what we needed to do to help our offense, and it sucks," he said. "We had a pretty good idea how we wanted to play it. The first quarter showed, but it seems after that, we couldn't get off the field."
The Patriots led 13-0 after the first quarter, and the defense had carried momentum over from its strong start to the season before problems started cropping up.
The first turning point came on the first play of the second quarter, when it appeared the Patriots had come up with a third consecutive third-down stop. But linebacker Jerod Mayo was called for what appeared to be a questionable pass interference penalty two yards from the line of scrimmage that extended the drive.
The Ravens went on to score a touchdown, and the complexion of the game changed. Whether the penalty was legit or not, the Patriots couldn't overcome it. Afterward, several players danced around the officiating issue, saying they could only focus on what they could control.
Cornerback Devin McCourty, for one, pinned the struggles of the unit on himself.
After a strong first three quarters, in which his coverage was generally tight and he had two near interceptions, the Ravens went right at him on the final two drives. McCourty was called for defensive holding on a second-and-14 play and his 27-yard pass interference penalty set up the final field goal.
Usually when the opposition picks on a captain, it's a matchup you want. Not this time, though.
"We fell short, especially me," said McCourty, who was credited with four passes defended. " You have to make plays, plain and simple. There were more plays, not just the last drive, that I can make and my team counts on me to make. It's simple, I have to make those plays."
The Ravens made them when it counted, and the Patriots didn't. So in a sense, this was a return to the frustrating Patriots' defense of the past few seasons. In 2011, the Patriots finished 31st in the NFL in giving up an average of 411 yards per game. Against the Ravens on Sunday, they surrendered a whopping 503 yards.
Defensive end Rob Ninkovich credited the Ravens gaining leverage on defenders to open running lanes. The Patriots' stout run D, which limited Tennessee's Chris Johnson to 4 yards on 11 carries in the season-opener, surrendered 121 yards on 26 carries (4.7 avg.), with Ray Rice grinding out 101 of them. Many of them came against the base 4-3 alignment.
The ground game ultimately allowed the Ravens and quarterback Joe Flacco, after overcoming a slow start, to be balanced. Flacco finished 28 of 39 for 382 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception, the Patriots unable to consistently move him off the spot as the pass rush sputtered.
"We did a great job on the outside today," Flacco said, referring to receivers Torrey Smith (6 catches, 127 yards, 2 TDs) and Jacoby Jones (3 catches, 86 yards), while noting how it also opened things up underneath, particularly on the second-to-last drive in the fourth quarter on check-downs to Rice.
That's true, but it's not as though the Patriots didn't have their chances to close things out. Leading 30-21 with 7:29 left, and with the Ravens taking over at their own 8?
If the Patriots' defense was ready to graduate into the elite ranks, this was a test it would have aced. Instead, there was frustration.
"In the end, it wasn't really good enough," Belichick said.
"In the end, we have to find a way to make a play to stop them," added safety Steve Gregory.
In the end, it was all about the end. That's when the defense, in Wilfork's words, left the offense out to dry.
It was a step back after a promising start to the season.