It was a rematch of the 2011 AFC Championship Game, so it was only fitting that the Patriots put on a 2011 nostalgia show for NBC's national Sunday Night Football audience.
Wes Welker, after two weeks more or less on the shelf, was a lynchpin of the attack. Tom Brady, after two less-than-Brady-like performances to start the season, was Tom Brady again.
But most importantly, the defense -- after two encouraging weeks that stirred memories of the stout '03 and '04 championship units -- melted back into the can't-stop-nuthin' Swiss Cheese A.C.
After an encouraging start (two three-and-outs and an interception on Baltimore's first three possessions), the Pats' defense wilted, allowing the Ravens -- who put together drives of 82, 92, 80, 92 and 70 yards -- score five of the last seven times they had the ball. Justin Tucker's 27-yard field goal as time expired provided the game-winning points, as Baltimore handed New England a bitter 31-30 defeat.
Much of the postgame discussion will center on the officiating, and rightfully so; the replacement refs put on their most controversial performance yet (and under a national television spotlight, to boot). Twenty-four penalties were called -- on one of them, Ravens coach John Harbaugh was nailed for unsportsmanlike conduct when he complained that the refs didn't see him signalling for a time out -- and Bill Belichick was so frustrated he actually grabbed at one of the officials who was racing off the field after the game, in an attempt to talk to him.
But to blame the referees for the defeat is to ignore a disheartening, alarming night by the Pats' defense that wiped out all the optimism that grew after its performance in the first two games.
"The offense played their tails off," said Vince Wilfork, "and we just left them out to dry."
More to come . . .