Take a deep breath.
It’s safe now to stick out your chest a little bit, Patriots Nation. Feel free, for the next week at least, to count your team among the five or six with a legitimate shot to win the Super Bowl (the others? Indy, Pittsburgh, the Giants and yes, the Ravens.) No small feat, considering it seemed from all you read and heard two weeks ago that the end may be upon us. Enjoy the reprieve from the doomsday crew, because you know a 24-17 loss next week at Denver could bring out the 8-8 posse once again.
So, after the Patriots' 27-21 win over the Ravens, spend the week soaking in the inevitable buffet of “The Patriots are Back!!” stories. Instead of having to scroll down when you look at the power rankings, the Patriots probably will be right near the top of the page (is there an Internet equal for “above the fold?” I can’t think of one.) Order, for now, has been restored. And the best month of the sports year (you think fans in Cleveland wouldn’t kill to worry about Tom Brady in the red zone and Josh Beckett in the playoffs?) has begun with a flat-out classic. You won’t see five better games in the NFL this season than the Baltimore-New England clash on Sunday (no matter how hard the officials tried to screw it up.)
Some questions to ponder while wondering if Joey Galloway might be willing to kick in the washing machine and fridge in order to sell the condo quickly …
IS THIS BECOMING BRANDON MERIWEATHER’S DEFENSE?
Nine tackles (and a couple of loud non-tackles) from Meriweather, who was the best safety on the field Sunday, which is saying something when the other team has Ed Reed making plays. And don’t forget the biggest contribution from Meriweather, coming across the field to knock down what seemed a sure TD pass from Joe Flacco to Derrick Mason in the second quarter, on a drive that eventually ended in a punt. A Rodney Harrison in 2003 kind of effort from Meriweather throughout the game. A Jerod Mayo-Meriweather foundation on defense for the next half-decade or so sure seems like a nice recipe.
(And how about Mike Wright abusing Matt Birk? Two sacks and another QB pressure (that led to a lousy roughing-the-passer call) from Wright against a six-time Pro Bowler? There’s a lot to like about this defense, which is looking like the Patriots' best since 2006 and maybe even the kind of group that can win games for you in the postseason. I know Ray Rice had his way, but we are four games in and I think that you’d have to give the defense at least a B+ to this point. Haven’t heard too much pining for Richard Seymour the last few weeks.)
WHAT HAPPENED TO FRED TAYLOR?
Taylor went from 21 carries and 105 yards last week over Atlanta to seven carries and 25 yards on Sunday, a drop-off in touches that should surprise no one that has watched the Patriots over the last four seasons. This is going to be a platoon backfield, plain and simple. No one is going to carry the ball 200 times for this team (Taylor is on pace for 180 carries). How do I know this? Well since Corey Dillon in 2005 (209 carries) no Patriots back has attempted 200 rushes in a season. And it’s not like 200 carries is a huge number, either. That’s 12.5 carries a game. In the last three years there have been 73 players with 200-carry seasons in the NFL.
But the Pats couldn’t run the ball vs. Baltimore Sunday (2.8 yards per carry), so Taylor spent the majority of the game watching from the sidelines. But there was production from the position, as Sammy Morris converted a huge fourth-and-1 from the Baltimore 3-yard line on the first half drive that led to Brady’s rushing score. Morris also capped off the second TD drive of the first half with a 12-yard score and five passes (he had only four catches in the first three weeks). I’m sure there is a reason Laurence Maroney (7 carries, 6 yards) keeps playing, but that reason eludes me, which I guess is sort of ironic, right?
AND THE WEEKLY TOM BRADY VERDICT IS …
Oh, easily his best game of the year. I thought he looked comfortable and moved around the pocket with the kind of calm that at least resembled the pre-Bernard Pollard Brady.
Phil Simms (who I thought was OK) didn’t think that Brady’s TD pass to Moss was a good throw, but I disagreed. That’s a play he hasn’t made so far in 2009. With a heavy pass rush in his face (his arm got hit on the play) Brady took his time, recognized Moss had one-on-one coverage and put the ball where it had to be. Having Wes Welker back obviously was a huge boost, but I still maintain the Pats offense is most dangerous when a back, whether it is Morris or Kevin Faulk, is heavily involved. I have a sneaking feeling that Brady is going off next week at Denver. Think 400 yards and three TDs, minimum.
(And count me among those who think the QBs are way too protected — we really are a step away from Pro Bowl treatment — but what Terrell Suggs pulled on Brady was garbage. An absolute cheap shot. The NFL will do nothing (maybe fine him a couple grand) but that’s the kind of play that warrants a suspension. I mean, his only intent on that play was to injure Brady. Cheapest hit on the knee since Bobby Brown on Daniel LaRusso in the semifinals of the 1984 All-Valley Karate Championships. Which makes sense, actually, because John Harbaugh kind of gives off a Cobra Kai meets Stan Gable kind of vibe.)
IT IS NICE TO HAVE THE BEST KICKER IN THE NFL, ISN’T IT?
Sure is. Easy to take Stephen Gostkowski for granted (kickers are sort of like umpires — best when not noticed), but he continues to get better. Going into 2009 his career best in yards per kickoff was 65.5 yards. So far this season he’s at 70.8. He’s over 90 percent in field goal accuracy for the second straight season (11-for-12) and made the biggest special teams play of the year to this point, recovering the Leodis McKelvin fumble in the waning minutes of the Bills game. Listen, Adam Vinatieri will always top any list of the best kickers in Pats history, but Gostkowski has been (at worst) every bit his equal over the last three-plus seasons. And keep in mind that Vinatieri makes four times as much money ($2 million a year vs. $500,000) and got a $3.5 million signing bonus (vs. a $425,000 bonus for Gostkowski).
Gostkowski: 88 field goals in 102 attempts, 86.3 percent.
Vinatieri: 73 field goals in 89 attempts, 82.0 percent.
Gostkowski: 65.1 yards per kickoff.
Vinatieri: 65.4 yards per kickoff (and remember, Vinatieri kicked indoors for two seasons).
THINK THESE TEAMS HAVE SEEN THE LAST OF EACH OTHER THIS SEASON?
Who knows? But that absolutely felt like a playoff game on Sunday. The loss did nothing to injure the Ravens' reputation as Super Bowl contenders. If anything, they seem even more legit after taking the Pats all the way to the final bell at Gillette. You already know the defense is top-notch, but this is now an offense that can take over games. Joe Flacco has made the jump, and Ray Rice looks like he could be a 1,200-yard back. The only thing that gives you any pause at all about the Ravens is the wide receivers. Mason is fine, of course, but can you really trust any corps that has Kelley Washington in a key role? No surprise that Mark Clayton dropped the fourth-down pass on the game’s final play — and that is what scares you if you are a Ravens fan. But if your team has only one true weakness, wide receiver depth is not a bad one to have. Bottom line: The Ravens will be around at the end. And it’s looking more and more that the same can be said for the Patriots.