FOXBORO — It was a victory that had all the earmarks of a vintage Patriots win, one straight from an earlier era where gritty, gutty football was the norm and victory didn’t always go to the more talented team, but the club that showed more mental toughness when the game was on the line.
Two weeks ago when New England shamed Miami in from of a national television audience, it was a triumph suited to South Beach, a game that showcased style and a flair for the dramatic … on a night where the Dolphins had checked out shortly after the start of the third quarter.
On Sunday against the Ravens, there was no such quit in a blue-collar Baltimore squad that delivered its trademark intensity from start to finish. As a result, Sunday’s game was the most impressive of the season for the Patriots, a victory that highlighted heart, determination and tenacity against one of the finest teams in football through the first five weeks of the 2010 season.
Rallying from 10 points down in the fourth quarter, the Patriots captured a 23-20 overtime victory (click here for the complete recap). In the process, they beat the Ravens at their own game, winning a street fight. The New England defense, which had been so roundly criticized, rose to the occasion with the game on the line, forcing three punts from Baltimore in the extra session and holding the Ravens without a first down throughout several key stretches of the contest. The offense picked up tough yards against a world-class defense, keeping the chains moving and getting the yardage when it needed it the most. And another superior performance from special teams with the game on the line cleared the way for New England’s third straight win and fourth in the first five games of the 2010 season.
“What we displayed today was a team,” said Vince Wilfork, who moved from his nose tackle spot to defensive end on Sunday. “When things weren’t going well, we stuck together. We kept on saying, ‘Hey, let’s just control what we can control.’ [It was] one play at a time and everybody got the message, so … big win.
“This is probably one of the biggest wins around here in a long, long time.”
In the end, the Patriots exorcised some of the ghosts of last year’s playoff catastrophe. And at the same time, they showed that amidst the circus of the last two weeks — the trade of Randy Moss and the re-acquisition of Deion Branch — they were able to block out all the excess noise and focus on what was important.
“We’ve lost a lot of guys due to injury, trades, whatever you want to call it. But we believe in this locker room that we can get it done,” said tight end Alge Crumpler, a veteran who would have fit in perfectly with the Super Bowl Patriots teams. “We have a core group of guys that are optimistic that, regardless of what the situations are, regardless of what happened last year, that we can continue to play together and stay together and win ballgames.
“I’m excited that this team showed that we can come from behind 10 points and win a ballgame. I’ve seen this team be up 10 and then win. So we have things that we can build on. It wasn’t perfect — if we don’t jump offsides, don’t drop the football, we might have run away with this thing. But I’ll take a win any way you can in this league.”
Here are nine other things we learned on Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium:
THE POST-RANDY MOSS ERA LOOKS FAMILIAR
As expected, without Moss in the lineup, the Patriots’ passing game did indeed focus on the short and intermediate routes, with the big gains coming mostly on yards after the catch. But across the board, this was a true retro performance — four New England pass catchers had at least 50 yards receiving, with Branch (nine catches for 98 yards and a touchdown), Wes Welker (seven catches for 53 yards), Danny Woodhead (five catches for 52 yards) and Aaron Hernandez (four catches for 61) doing the bulk of the work.
How did the Patriots approach things differently? According to the Ravens defense, the Patriots used a series of short to medium routes designed to attack the soft spot in the Baltimore defense, the area between the linebackers and the secondary.
“They just went choppy,” said Baltimore outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. “They chopped us up and then sometimes they would go for a medium-range route in between our secondary and our linebackers. They played good football down the stretch.”
“That’s the thing about this team — they never change the offense or the defense. They just keep rolling players through,” said Baltimore outside linebacker Jarret Johnson of the Patriots. “Not that Deion Branch isn’t a great receiver, but they have a lot of guys over there that are good at what they do. When you’ve got that scheme, with Tom Brady, you’re going to be good.”
IT’S LIKE DEION BRANCH NEVER LEFT FOXBORO
Through four games in 2010, Moss caught nine balls from Tom Brady. Branch has matched that output through one game. Against the Ravens, Branch’s nine receptions were the second highest single-game total of his career, dating back to his career-high 13-catch performance at San Diego as a rookie on Sept. 29, 2002.
“I don’t want to talk about the past, but I haven’t felt this way in four years,” said Branch, who was targeted a game-high 12 times.
Though almost everyone acknowledged the fact that the Patriots were trying to get him involved early, Branch started slowly, with two receptions through the first three quarters — an eight-yard catch in the first quarter and a 15-yarder in the second quarter.
Things started to heat up for him in the fourth. His first reception in the second half came with 11:08 remaining in regulation when he hauled in a short five-yard reception for his first touchdown as a Patriot since Jan. 1, 2006. (A game better known for Doug “Dropkick” Flutie.) And on New England’s final scoring drive, he accounted for 33 of the 45 yards, setting up Gostkowski’s 35-yard field goal that won the game.
“It’s kind of crazy,” he said. “I truly feel like when we got the ball on that last drive that we knew, ‘Hey, we’re going to go down and get some points out of this and win the game.’ That’s the feeling we had.”
It wasn’t a perfect return for Branch, who confessed to running an incorrect route in the second half. Because of what happened, the Patriots were forced to go to overtime.
“I messed up on one of the plays,” Branch said. “If I had run the right route we probably wouldn’t have gone to overtime. [Tom Brady] checked to a protection on the front line and I thought he checked to a run play. He came out looking for me and I’m over there blocking.”
As far as how the New England offense looked with a Branch-for-Moss substitution, Baltimore cornerback Chris Carr said there were a greater variety of routes from Branch as opposed to Moss.
“He was running some digs. They would line up with two tight ends in the game in the slot. They ran some dig routes with him,” said Baltimore cornerback Chris Carr. “Randy Moss was running those routes too, as well. [Branch] would line up sometimes in the slot, too. Him and Wes [Welker] would run some similar level routes, different, so that was different than the past. Randy Moss never really ran any short routes.
“He had a nice catch at the end of the first half — he played well. He’s an excellent player,” Carr added. “I think they are comfortable with him, because he’s been here and Tom Brady has played with him. Whenever you have a guy like that coming back, they are going to be comfortable having him in there.”
THE NEW ENGLAND RUNNING GAME WAS JUST GOOD ENOUGH … AGAIN
The Patriots are never going to blow people away with their running game, especially when they face a group like the Ravens, a team that was 11th-best in the league in stopping the run coming into Sunday’s game. But as has been the case through much of the 2010 season, the New England running game flashed enough ability to keep the Baltimore defense on its toes and pick up the key yards when called upon.
On Sunday, they more than reached their weekly goal of at least four yards per carry (they finished with 4.9 yards per carry), and were topped by Woodhead, who had 63 yards on 11 carries for a 5.7 yards per carry average. Woodhead, who is a walking, talking Disney movie come to life, was at his best on a fourth-quarter scoring drive that ended with a Brady-to-Branch touchdown pass. On that sequence, Woodhead netted 26 yards on two running plays, setting up the Patriots nicely for the score.
As for the rest of the ground game, BanJarvus Green-Ellis finished with an uneven 20 yards on 10 carries. But as has been the case the last few weeks, the Patriots were able to get some unlikely contributions in the ground game, as Brandon Tate had 22 yards on a reverse in the first half and an 18-yard run from Hernandez around left end in the second half.
The presence of a running game was enough to bring a threat to the play-action game, which helped on a key 22-yard completion from Brady to Branch in the fourth quarter when a play-action fake neatly froze Ray Lewis and opened a passing lane for a big gain on a series that would end with the game-tying field goal from Stephen Gostkowski.
SPECIAL TEAMS CONTINUES TO BE SPECIAL
On the heels of their spectacular performance two weeks ago against the Dolphins, it was another impressive outing for New England’s special teams unit — Zoltan Mesko averaged 47 yards a punt and dropped two inside the 20-yard line, and Gostkowski connected on all three of his field goal attempts and had three touchbacks.
And while there were no blocked kicks or kick returns for touchdowns, a key sequence in overtime was enough to ultimately be the difference in the win.
First, Mesko boomed a 65-yard punt without a return in the extra session, tilting the field in New England’s favor and giving the Ravens possession at their own 19-yard line after the Patriots faced a fourth-and-6 from their own 16-yard line. Mesko’s 65-yard punt was the longest in Patriots history in overtime, and the longest of his career.
“It was just a great feeling to help the team win,” said Mesko. “I know in the fourth quarter of the first couple of games, I was a little … I wouldn’t call it shaky, but I didn’t deliver when the teams needed to be backed up. We had some unique situations where we were either up by a lot or the Jets game where we lost. It was definitely rewarding. It was good to see that hard work pay off.”
Second, after the Patriots regained possession and Brady guided them to the Baltimore 18-yard line, Gostkowski was called upon to win it for New England. It has been a bit of a struggle this year for Gostkowski, who was 4-for-7 on his field goal attempts coming into the game. But the kicker, who delivered a 24-yarder with 1:51 left in regulation to tie the game, was straight and true from 35 yards out in the extra frame (even after kicking a second time because of the two-minute warning) to win the game in sudden death for the Patriots.
“It’s nice to get a win. The couple times that I’ve had a chance to be in overtime it seems like I kick off every time and haven’t had an opportunity, and I was just glad to get an opportunity,” Gostkowski said of the second game-winner of his career, which he connected on with 1:56 left in overtime. “As a field goal kicker you can’t make your own opportunities. You just got to go with what is given to you on the offense and defense and when you get an opportunity to come through for your team it’s very rewarding to be the last person to touch the ball and come off winners.”
There were no electric returns from Tate (he had just one return for 19 yards) or blocks from Pat Chung, but it put the capper on excellent back-to-back weeks for New England’s special teams unit.
“We definitely have a lot of pride in special teams,” Gostkowski said. “The attention to detail that we take and the time and effort we put into it … you don’t want to work that hard all week and those guys that have to play offense and defense that run around they don’t want to be doing those extra reps in practice to go out there and stink it up. Once you get a couple good plays, you get confidence and it carries over. It’s nice to see the results, and any time you can help the team win as a special teams unit it is very rewarding.”
BRANDON MERIWEATHER IS ALWAYS INTERESTING
It was en eventful afternoon for the safety, who has been a lightning rod for controversy for much of the season. Earlier in the year, he ignited the wrath of the New England fanbase with a series of comments where he referred to himself as the “party-starter” on defense and telling WEEI he ignored the coaching staff because he “was trying a lot of things in camp just to see if they worked. And they weren’t. Instead of me stopping trying them and doing exactly what I was coached, I kept trying them.”
Now, Meriweather is sure to get more heat for what happened Sunday against the Ravens. On Baltimore’s first touchdown of the game, he took a direct shot at the head of Ravens tight end Todd Heap. He missed that time, but caught him later in the first half with a helmet-to-helmet shot that drew a 15-yard penalty and will almost certainly draw a fine from the league this week.
While Heap lay motionless on the turf for several minutes, Meriweather was quickly yanked from the game, and spent the next few plays on the sidelines while the Patriots went to backup Jarrad Page. The Patriots, who were already without James Sanders at safety, were already thin at the position, which could have been the reason Meriweather was re-inserted in the game as quickly as he was. (Later in the game, he was flagged for an illegal contact call, but on a second look, it appeared that fellow defensive back Kyle Arrington was the one who was actually at fault on the play.)
Regardless, after the game, Meriweather — who had three tackles on the day — wasn’t talking about the hit that landed him on the sidelines. Asked if he expected to draw a fine, Meriweather said: “I’m not talking about that.” When pressed again, Meriweather said: “I’m not talking about it, period. Any other questions?”
For his part, Heap didn’t say if he felt it was a helmet-to-helmet hit.
“I don’t even know. I didn’t see it coming,’’ said Heap, who would later return to the game and finished with three catches for 49 yards and a touchdown. “They’ve been trying to clean that stuff up. Obviously, he got flagged. There’s not a lot of room in this game for that. There’s a better way you can take that shot. They’re trying to take that out of the game. It was more my neck than anything.’’
THE BATTLE OF THIRD DOWN WAS WON BY THE PATRIOTS
Entering the game, it was clear that third-down play was going to be a major factor: The Patriots came into the game as the best team in the league when it came to converting on third down (55 percent), while the Ravens were the best team in the league at stopping teams on third down (27 percent). In addition, Baltimore’s offense ranked No. 1 at converting third-and-long situations (44 percent) while New England’s defense was second worst in the league at stopping third-and-long situations (also 44 percent).
On Sunday, neither team was very good when it came to converting on third down (the Ravens were 5-for-16 for 31 percent, while the Patriots were 4-for-14 for 29 percent). But in the end, the Patriots were better when it counted the most. On its last five possessions (two in regulation and all three in overtime), Baltimore was forced to punt the ball on each possession. In addition, the Ravens had three three-and-outs over that sequence, and converted just one third-down opportunity through that stretch.
Included in that group was a quarterback sneak on third-and-1 from Baltimore’s Joe Flacco midway through the fourth quarter. With the Ravens holding a 20-17 lead, a conversion might have spelled doom at that point for the Patriots. But New England stopped Flacco, forced a punt, and the Patriots cashed in with a late field goal by Gostkowski. The stop was clearly a turning point for the Patriots.
“We stepped up when we needed to step up,” said Wilfork. “All year on third down, we’ve had problems in that area. Then, something went off and we basically turned it around. “It’s third down and we get off the field. Once we get off the field, we’re a totally different defense. You know what? Nobody’s getting off the field now? Now, everybody understands how important third down is.”
THE PATRIOTS HAVE SHOWN THEY CAN WIN WHEN BRADY IS LESS THAN HIS BEST
First, let’s all remember this: the Ravens are one of the best defenses in the league, and entered the contest second in the NFL in overall pass defense. So Brady's overall numbers — 27-for-44 for 292 passing yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and three sacks — have to be taken with a grain of salt.
But for the second consecutive week, Brady has been less than stellar, and the Patriots have still been able to find a way to win.
“I know I missed some reads out there and some open receivers, so I have to do a better job of getting us the ball and getting those guys the ball and keeping those chains moving,” said Brady, who has now won 23 straight regular-season home games, second only to Brett Favre’s run of 25 straight with Green Bay from 1995 through 1998.
“But I’m glad we pulled it out.”
While the numbers weren’t there, it looked like it was a fun game for Brady, who was positively Favrian in some of his on-field exultations. In the fourth quarter, he completed an impressive 24-yard pass play to rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski, and was knocked down by a Baltimore defender. He got up barking at anyone who was in the area, and ended up going jaw-to-jaw with Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs. Two plays later, on an awkward looking handoff, he tried to throw a block at Baltimore defensive back Dawan Landry.
And then, there’s the chemistry between Brady and Branch. After the game, the quarterback gushed over the return of the Louisville product, and the love was returned in kind by Branch.
“We’ve known each other for a long time, so I think that chemistry is there and it will be there for a long time,” Brady said of Branch. “He made some big catches — all those play-action passes — he made some good plays on those, so it’s great to have him out there.”
“Playing with this guy, he just makes you feel a little bit more than what you really are,” Branch said of Brady. “I know this would never happen … I give him so much credit because he deserves it. But true enough, I wish every receiver would get the opportunity to play with this guy, because he’s amazing. He’s amazing.”
ALGE CRUMPLER GOT A WELL-DESERVED HONOR THIS PAST WEEK
Through five games, Crumpler has only one catch for four yards, the worst numbers of anyone on the team who has at least one reception. But his impact goes beyond the numbers — other than Rodney Harrison, you would be hard-pressed to find an already established veteran who has come into the New England locker room and made such a positive impact in such a short time.
And it’s not just with the two rookie tight ends, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski (who locker on either side of him). The rest of the offensive skill position players look up to Crumpler, and not just because at 6-foot-2 and 275 pounds he’s one of the biggest guys on the roster.
So when the Patriots went looking to add to their depleted group of captains on the offensive side of the ball (Kevin Faulk suffered a knee injury in Week 2 against the Jets, and while he still remains close to the team, it’s just not the same), Crumpler was an easy choice.
“Tom [Brady] is a great leader — there’s no question about that,” Belichick said after Sunday’s game. “But it’s hard for a quarterback, really, to be a captain for the whole group, the offensive linemen and the big guys and all of that, it’s just … it’s a skill position.
“When I met with the captains last we talked about adding another player on offense. We talked about Alge. I asked Alge about it and he was really receptive to doing it, so that’s what we did.”
“It was an honor. Coach [Belichick] announced it to the team on Wednesday that I just continue to do the things that I’ve set forth from the first day I stepped into this organization — that’s help the team win,” Crumpler said. “I’ve been through a lot of situations — I’ve been a captain before. I didn’t expect this, but I embrace the opportunity to keep leading and keep helping this ballclub win games.”
FOR THE PATRIOTS, REDEMPTION IS SWEET
Entering Sunday’s game, the images of 33-14 were indelibly etched in the collective subconscious of every one of the Patriots: Rice running unfettered through a porous New England run defense. Suggs and Lewis setting up shop in the Patriots’ backfield. And the Ravens and their fans gleefully hooting New England off the field at the end of the game.
“A lot of guys that were here for this playoff game last year understood what this game meant,” said Wilfork, who finished with six tackles, two of which were for a loss.
On Sunday, the Patriots were able to get a little payback, and add to their revenge list. Three times in the last six years, the Patriots have now had the opportunity to face the team that ended their season the previous year. The Broncos ended their 2005 season with a playoff defeat, but New England wasn’t able to cash in their chance at revenge the following season, losing a 17-7 matchup at Gillette Stadium. After the Colts beat the Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship Game, New England was able to gain some revenge in 2007 with a 24-20 win. And now, the Patriots were able to avenge the loss that ended the 2009 season with Sunday’s win.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Ravens weren’t already thinking ahead to another possible playoff showdown.
“Hats off to them — they won the football game,” said Suggs, “but they better hope they don’t see us again.”
“If we see them in the playoffs,” promised Lewis, “we will be ready again.”