It was an improbable 23-20 victory for the Patriots last Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium. The defense of the home team was supposed to be inferior to Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens big defense. After all, this was the same Baltimore team that convincingly eliminated them from last year’s playoffs in a blowout in this very stadium, which had previously never happened in the Tom Brady era.
Yet, coming into the game, the Patriots were 5-0 against the Ravens in the regular season. So how did the Patriots eek this one out? Big time defensive play, led by Jerod Mayo’s astonishing and team-leading 18 tackles, and clutch catches by a new but familiar face, wide receiver Deion Branch. He caught a 5-yard Brady pass early in the fourth quarter for a touchdown to get the Pats within three points at 20-17, followed by about six more key receptions near the end of regulation and overtime combined to set up kicker Stephen Gostkowski’s game-tying late fourth quarter field goal and game-winning one with 1:51 left in OT.
But nearly halfway through the second quarter came the only inexcusable negative play in the game. Ravens veteran tight end Todd Heap took a vicious hit from young Pats safety Brandon Meriweather, and consequently took a while to get up from it. He would leave the game.
Even Pats fans like me said, “That’s a no-no” after watching the replay. NFL players aren’t supposed to leave their feet or “launch” into opposing players, especially with helmets. It was labeled helmet-to-helmet contact by the referee, and I wouldn’t have been shocked if he was kicked out of the game in addition to being penalized for it.
Starting this weekend, NFL players will definitely be suspended for clearly flagrant hits to the head, instead of (or in addition to) the usual light fine. Meriweather will indeed get a fine or be suspended for New England’s next game against San Diego, even though the new policy wasn’t in effect when the hit to Heap happened and that the Pats player has no prior history of such flagrant hits. And though a suspension would be detrimental to the team, I would have no problem with it.
Patriots fan or not, you can’t excuse and not suspend or at least heavily fine ($50,000 or more) anyone who uses any part of their body as a weapon, be it Meriweather, Pittsburgh’s James Harrison, Atlanta’s Dunta Robinson (who gave himself and victim DeSean Jackson concussions on Sunday) or others, since NFL rules rightly prohibit such play.
There’s a big difference between playing “aggressive,” as Meriweather said he was doing when he hit his “friend” Heap, and (illegally) going up high on a defenseless receiver who didn’t even have the ball in his hands, as was the case with Heap. It was just stupid, and even Pats coach Bill Belichick had the “Give me a break” look on his face when Meriweather went to the sideline to explain himself.
Can the Pats still win without Meriweather? Yes, but they’ll need to fight against being timid and weak at the safety position should Meriweather be unavailable, and remember to just tackle the way they were taught, not to look for the kill. Being carelessly aggressive could end someone’s season and even career, as players past and present are well aware.
UPDATE: Meriweather and Robinson have been fined $50,000 but won’t be suspended (likely because they had no prior occurrences of such hits), while Harrison was fined $75,000. That was the least I expected.