The Patriots won their third straight game yesterday with a 23-20 overtime win over the Baltimore Ravens in Foxborough, and let there be no doubt about what this means for the growth of your young, rebuilding football team. Full speed ahead. The Ravens are among the biggest of the big boys, a well-coached team that is tough and physical, talented and balanced. Baltimore excels on offense defense and special teams, and the Ravens are among the leading contenders to be representing the AFC in Super Bowl.
And yet, where the Ravens were able to visit the Jets and Steelers and emerge with victories this season, they were unable to nail down a win yesterday in Foxborough, where the Patriots officially went from a team in transition to one that is, well, getting very interesting very, very quickly.
Make no mistake, the Patriots played their most complete game of the season yesterday in what was a crystallization of Belichick’s master plan.
"Man, that was a good win for our football team," said Belichick, who typically tosses around compliments as if they were manhole covers. "I’m really proud of those kids. Ten points down in the fourth quarter, rallied, fought through it in overtime. You’ve got to give them all the credit in the world. We had a lot of big plays out there."
Indeed they did. And they got them from everywhere, particularly from a cast of developing youngsters who now seem to be getting it. Brandon Spikes. Zoltan Mesko. Jermaine Cunningham. BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The reuniting of Tom Brady and Deion Branch was an obvious story line, but we’ve seen that act before. The difference is that Brady and Branch were then surrounded by fellows named Seymour, Bruschi, Vinatieri and Givens.
Entering yesterday, the Patriots had played three games and won them in a variety of ways. They lit up the Bengals and Bills. They put on a special teams clinic against the Dolphins. But they had not really won a game on defense, not even at Miami, where the Dolphins punted just once and converted 10-of-15 attempts on third down only to be undone by the carelessness of quarterback Chad Henne.
But yesterday? The Pats did everything, and against a football team that allowed very little margin for error. Go right down the list. After the Ravens went up, 3-0, the Patriots went three-and-out. Mesko nailed a 54-yard punt before the defense hit back, reclaiming possession. Brady and the offense went 66 yards in six plays for a touchdown that produced a 7-3 lead when the Pats might have been facing a 10-0 deficit, setting the tone for a day in which the obvious pattern was punch and counterpunch.
Ah yes, the fourth quarter. Already facing a 17-10 deficit, the Patriots held the Ravens to a field goal on a 13-play, 84-yard drive that began late in the third quarter and took 6:47 off the clock. That was a bigger development than one might have guessed, particularly when Billy Cundiff’s ensuing kickoff went out of bounds and granted the Patriots possession at their own 40-yard line. The Patriots drove for a touchdown, quickly forced the Ravens offense off the field, then drove for a game-tying field goal. Even then, the Ravens had 1:51 left to win the game, but unlike Cundiff, Stephen Gostkowski drilled the ensuing kick out of the end zone for a touchback and the Ravens went three-and-out.
OK, so Aaron Hernandez got the drops in overtime. But give the Patriots credit for fighting through those, too. Hernandez’ second drop, in fact, played an enormous role in the Patriots being forced to punt from their own 16-yard line with 7:26 to play. A net of, say, 40 yards on that kick would have the Ravens the ball at their own 44-yard line, at which point Mesko belted a 65-yarder -- including the roll -- that pinned the Ravens at their own 19. Hernandez’s drop suddenly turned into a 22-yard gain when the Pats got the ball back at their own 38, from where they started the drive that produced Gostkowski’s game-winning field goal.
Entering this season, we all knew what this season would bring for the Patriots, who were particularly young on defense. The challenges are far from over. And yet, the Ravens punted nine times yesterday – count 'em, nine – with quarterback Joe Flacco often looking flummoxed, particularly on third down. The Ravens began yesterday going 3-for-5 on third down. After that, they went 2-for-11, including 1-for-7 in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Does this all mean the Patriots are suddenly Super Bowl contenders? Obviously, it is far too early to tell. The Pats go to San Diego next week, then come home to face the Vikings, then have upcoming dates with the Steelers and Colts, too. The Jets still have to come to Foxborough. So do the Dolphins. The Packers travel here just before Christmas.
The Patriots have a long, long way to go this season.
But if they stop today to take a brief glimpse over their shoulders, they will also see that they already have come a long way, too.
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