BALTIMORE -- The roar told you everything you needed to know.
Early Sunday night, deep within the bowels of M&T Bank Stadium, the Patriots had just vanquished the Ravens by a 41-7 count, and there was some celebrating going on. As the media stood outside the New England locker room, an audible cheer could be heard inside. The hats and T-shirts had been handed out -- the division title had been clinched -- and the questions as to whether or not the Patriots could go on the road and deliver a signature game against a worthy opponent had been answered.
"I couldn’t be prouder of [our] football team," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "They earned it today.
"That’s a good football team we played. But our guys earned it today."
It was the sort of signature win the team can hang its hat on -- the 2013 Patriots can now staple this victory to its resume, and when someone asks about the chances on the road against Cincinnati, Kansas City, Indy or the Broncos in the playoffs, they can point to Sunday's complete and total dismantling of the Ravens and say, "Well, there was this."
As a result, they get to call themselves division champions. Again. For the fifth consecutive year and 11th time in 13 seasons, New England is king of the AFC East. And while you will never get Brady or Belichick to compare titles, this one might be a little extra special considering the events of the last calendar year.
"Every year is special, but we’ve really earned it this year," said Brady. "We've faced adversity all year. Of course, other teams have, too. But our mental toughness has really gotten us through this."
The Patriots actually had the division crown in hand before they took the field (thanks to Buffalo's upset of Miami), but New England wasn't really interested in backing into the playoffs. That much was clear from the jump, as the Patriots were in command right out of the gate as they assembled their most complete performance of the season in all three areas. Consider the following:
• The offense was 3-for-3 when it came to touchdowns in the red zone (against one of the best red zone defenses in the league) and put 17-0 first-half points on the board. Quarterback Tom Brady wasn't statistically overwhelming, finishing 14-for-26 for 172 yards and a touchdown, but New England got a superlative effort from the running game, which bolstered the offense with 142 rushing yards.
• The defense didn't allow the Ravens to cross midfield until the second half. The D came away with four takeaways, and held Baltimore to 5-for-14 on third down, 0-for-3 on fourth down and one relatively meaningless touchdown. The Torrey Smith/Jacoby Jones combo had four catches for 80 yards, while Ray Rice had 11 carries for 40 yards.
• New England's special teams also did its job. The kick coverage unit rendered elite kick returner Jacoby Jones a nonfactor (six of the eight Patriots kickoffs were touchbacks), Stephen Gostkowski connected on field goals of 45 and 42 yards, and the Ravens' average starting field position was their own 22-yard line.
More importantly, it was the first game in which the Patriots played a full 60 minutes. Over the first 14 games, there were inconsistencies that popped up here and there -- letdowns that were occasionally exploited by an opponent. There was the nagging tendency to dig themselves early holes, only to be saved by some late-game magic front Brady.
Not on Sunday. The Patriots had the Ravens pegged from the moment they got on the bus at the team hotel. When you had the sort of week of practice New England had, it was hard to feel otherwise.
"Coming in here, on the bus ride in here, I felt great. I knew that we were going to beat these guys," said defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who had a sack and six tackles in the win. "And getting some hand gestures from some of the fans, that's always a good motivating thing. I was confident -- I knew that we had worked hard. I knew that we had put in the work. If you put the time in, you put the effort in, and you do it on the practice field, it's going to come out in the end."
In the end, it was the Patriots' biggest win of the season at the perfect time. Now they'll hope to build on that momentum, starting with next week against the Bills. A win over Buffalo gives them the second seed in the AFC playoff chase, and after that it's on to the postseason.
When it comes to the 2013 Patriots, it's been a ridiculous roller coaster of an experience -- 11 of the 15 games have been decided by seven points or less, as Brady, Belichick and the rest of the veterans have held things together while veterans continue to struggle with injury.
But the biggest -- and most important -- part of the ride is just beginning.
“That’s what we work for all year," Belichick said. "We started with the offseason programs, OTAs, and training camp. We worked to put ourselves in position to have a chance to compete at the end of the year, and we did that. We got ourselves into position to qualify for the playoffs. That’s good.
"We’ll see what happens going forward."
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots on Sunday.
THE ACQUISITION OF LeGARRETTE BLOUNT MIGHT BE ONE OF BILL BELICHICK'S MOST UNDERRATED TRADES
Acquired this past spring for running back/kick returner Jeff Demps -- a speedster who seemed distinctly lukewarm about the idea of playing football -- Blount has been a revelation this season. He started as an ancillary back and part-time contributor, but his role has grown tremendously over the course of the season to the point where he's the closest thing that the Patriots now have to a feature back. The veteran, who will be heading to the postseason for the first time in his career, had 16 carries for 76 yards and a pair of touchdowns Sunday against the Ravens. He punctuated a beastly display of four-minute offense in the fourth quarter with a seven-yard burst for his second touchdown of the night, then added some insult to injury with a Ray Lewis dance as part of his celebration. With Blount, it's not so much the total yards that catches your eye but the fact that he's consistent in his approach. He's hit at least 4.0 yards per carry in eight of his last nine games, and he rarely makes mistakes. He may not be the elite, 300-carries-per-season back of his younger days, but has been one of the most important parts of the New England offense to this point in the season, and he will be counted on to make a big contribution going into the playoffs.
THEY CAN GET PHYSICAL
The Patriots were every bit the equal of the big, bruising Ravens. New England was in control of the trenches for just about the entire night. The Patriots set the tone early with 12 runs on their first 17 plays from scrimmage, knocking the Baltimore defensive linemen off their spots and moving the ball with relative ease. Brady was sacked just twice, while the Patriots got to Joe Flacco for four sacks. The coup de grace came in the fourth quarter with an eye-popping display of four-minute offense that finished with Blount reaching the end zone. For a team not known for being as physical as the Ravens, New England put more than its share of hurt on Baltimore. After the game, Logan Mankins couldn't resist getting in a shot at the Patriots' critics: "The experts I know always have all the answers, and they really had them when they picked the winner of this game. So when they don’t mention us being physical, I always say, ‘Ask the guy that lines up across from me if we’re physical.’ ”
TOM BRADY WON'T WIN THE MVP
This is not necessarily a character flaw -- it's just going to be awfully hard for voters not to give the MVP to a quarterback who broke the single-season record for touchdown passes on Sunday and could end up topping 5,500 passing yards in a season. Entering Sunday, Brady had been on a nice roll -- in his last six games prior to the game against the Ravens, he was completing passes at a remarkable 69 percent clip, averaging 370.8 passing yards per game and had 14 touchdowns vs. four interceptions in that span. All of that allowed him to nudge his way into the MVP discussion, but that talk likely came to an end on Sunday. While New England crushed the Ravens 41-7 on Sunday, Brady's stat line -- 14-for-26, 172 yards, one touchdown -- looked rather pedestrian, thanks in large part to a reliance on the running game. He was at his best early, as he whipped up a couple of impressive first-quarter scoring drives that allowed the Patriots to take an early 14-0 lead. But he stepped back in the second half as New England pounded away at the Ravens. So even if he loses out on the MVP and the single-season record for TD passes, he's still managed to put together a wildly impressive season under the most difficult of circumstances. Plus, he's given the Internet so many terrific GIFs over the season, including this one from Sunday -- although this one and this one both are pretty great.
LOGAN MANKINS CAN PLAY ANYWHERE HE DAMN WELL WANTS TO
Mankins started at left tackle in place of Nate Solder on Sunday, and he was immense against the Ravens, doing his part to limit a fearsome Baltimore pass rush. In the end, the Ravens were able to sack Brady twice and hit him four times, but they were held at bay for three reasons. One, Mankins and the rest of the line did an excellent job providing Brady with the time he needed to stay clean and deliver the passes he needed in key situations. Two, Brady was able to buy time with a combination of well-executed play-action fakes, and when he wasn't doing that, he was doing his level best to get the ball out as fast as possible to keep them on their heels. And three, the line was doing a tremendous job opening up holes for the running game, which ended with 142 rushing yards (the most since the backs put up 197 yards against the Steelers on Nov. 3).
LOSING DEVIN MCCOURTY WOULD BE REALLY BAD
MCourty went down following a third-quarter collision with Ravens tight end Ed Dickson. The defensive back went in low on Dickson and clearly was shaken up. He staggered to his feet at the end of the play but looked a little woozy and quickly went down to one knee. He received attention from medical personnel before departing for the locker room, and the team announced that he had a head injury and would not return. In his place, the Patriots turned to Duron Harmon, the third-round pick out of Rutgers, who ended with three tackles and a pass defensed, but the idea of losing McCourty for an extended stretch would be a sizable blow for a defense that is already without defensive linemen Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo. In their absence, McCourty has been a steadying presence, leading a relatively young defense and providing support along the back line.
LOGAN RYAN MIGHT BE NEW ENGLAND'S ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
The rookie out of Rutgers had a pair of picks fall right into his lap and now leads the team with five interceptions. His first of the night came midway through the first quarter -- Flacco let one fly, and while linebacker Dont'a Hightower was able to tip it up in the air, Ryan was the one who corralled the ball. Six plays later, the Patriots cashed it in with a four-yard pass from Brady to Shane Vereen to make it 14-0 with 4:56 left in the first quarter. The second one came with just over 10 minutes left in the third quarter when Baltimore's Dennis Pitta couldn't contain another Flacco pass -- that set up a third-quarter field goal from Stephen Gostkowski. Ryan ended the game with two picks and a pass breakup, and now he leads all rookie defensive backs with five interceptions. While you could debate the merits of Ryan vs. Aaron Dobson for New England's ROY honors, it appears that the third-round pick (who played most of the night in place of hobbled cornerback Alfonzo Dennard) has more than made his case as the most impactful rookie of the 2013 season to this point in the year.
TURNOVERS ARE IMPORTANT
The calling card of so many of the New England teams of the last few seasons has been an ability to come up with key turnovers. While the 2013 Patriots are on the plus side of the takeaway ledger -- they are plus-10, third best in the AFC -- they haven't matched some of the New England teams of the last few years. (The 2010 team was plus-28, the 2011 team was plus-17 and the 2012 team was plus-25.) After a few games in which they had trouble forcing takeaways -- they had two takeaways the previous three games before Sunday -- they bounced back against the Ravens. In addition to Ryan's two takeaways, they got a pair off Baltimore backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who was in the game late because the Ravens yanked Flacco. The first came on a fumble at the Baltimore 20 -- after it was knocked into the end zone, Chandler Jones picked it up for a touchdown to make it 34-7 with just under two minutes left. Six plays later, there was an interception from little-used safety Tavon Wilson (who was playing because of the injury to McCourty). He took the errant throw 74 yards for a touchdown, making it 41-7 with just under a minute left. Several players in the locker room after the game -- including Ninkovich -- made it a point to say that coming away with turnovers was a big point of emphasis on Sunday, and the Patriots executed properly.
THEY CAN WIN A BLOWOUT
After a constant stream of games that went down to the final minute, it was a relief for many of the Patriots to win a game that was a relative blowout. Entering Sunday’s game, New England had played 14 games, and 11 of them had been decided by seven points or less. (Eight turned in the final minutes of regulation, including each of the last five prior to Sunday.) But there wasn't much drama in Baltimore -- the Patriots jumped out quickly, avoiding an early deficit, and kept the screws to the Ravens. Earlier in the year, the Patriots beat the Steelers by 24 (55-31) and Bucs by 20 (23-3), but this one will top those two. “It was kind of nice to be in a game that didn’t come down to the last seconds,” Belichick said. “We actually had a lead with a couple of minutes to go.”
THE SECOND SEED IS IN SIGHT
The 11-4 Patriots now have a very simple directive: Win Sunday against the Bills at home, and they’ll secure the No. 2 seed in the AFC. (They also can clinch the No. 2 seed if the Bengals lose at home to the Ravens.) While the win over Baltimore was nice, Cincinnati kept some heat on New England with a win over the Vikings. The Patriots remain a game ahead of the Bengals, and they need it to stay that way, because Cincy holds the tiebreaker because of the 13-6 win at Paul Brown Stadium on Oct. 6. (For what it’s worth, The Patriots also have an outside chance at the No. 1 overall seed if they win and the 12-3 Broncos slip up and lose to the Raiders in Oakland. In that case, the Patriots would be the No. 1 and Denver would finish as the No. 2 seed.) Why is the No. 2 seed -- and the accompanying bye week -- so important? All five trips to the Super Bowl under Belichick have come when New England had had the bye -- the closest they have come to advancing to the Super Bowl without a bye was in 2006 when they won at home in the wild card round against the Jets and beat the Chargers on the road before losing to Indy in the AFC championship. It would also provide an extra week for some key players to heal up, including Solder, McCourty and Dennard.