Heading into this week's game against the Baltimore Ravens, I had a feeling that the game would be an excellent "statement game" for the New England Patriots. With a 23-20 overtime victory, in a game where the Patriots trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter, this game certainly qualifies as a "statement victory."
The first three quarters were certainly up and down for the Pats. You could argue that they were even more down than up. The defense showed some signs of life and looked solid overall, but made too many bone-headed mistakes with a lot of costly penalties.
Nonetheless, the defense did hold running back Ray Rice in check. Rice, who is a big play threat every time he touches the ball, didn't have a run longer than eight yards or a catch longer than 11. The Patriots played a lot of base 3-4, and kept the big plays in check all day. Even when Rice was able to catch the ball, there would always be a linebacker or two right on him to make the stop and avoid giving up the first down or big gain.
In my mind, there were three key players who were dominant in the Patriots' front seven. Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Vince Wilfork all had terrific games in helping shut down the Ravens' running attack. Mayo looks even better than in 2008, and Brandon Spikes really stepped up and made some big plays in the fourth quarter and overtime. The two players combined for 32 tackles.
The Patriots' two outside linebackers, Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham, also had great games. Ninkovich came up with eight solo tackles and had a couple of decent pass rushes. Rookie Jermaine Cunningham was particularly disruptive, coming up with his first career sack (a strip sack on Joe Flacco), as well as a couple of good rushes and stops against the run.
Of course, the defense was most impressive in the fourth quarter and overtime. Between the two periods, the Patriots shut down the Ravens offense from scoring on five separate occasions, including three times in overtime. We've said it all along: this defense will grow as we get deeper into the season. Today, we saw that thought come to fruition as the defense came up big on several occasions today.
Offensively, without Randy Moss, the Patriots fared alright. In the first half, the Patriots had drives killed by dropped passes, as well as poorly-timed sacks and penalties. For the most part, despite facing a lot of pressure throughout the day, Tom Brady was sharp (despite the two interceptions). On the ground, BenJarvus Green-Ellis only produced 20 yards on 10 carries, but had the team's only touchdown through three quarters and took what the defense gave him. The bright spot on the ground came from the play of Danny Woodhead. Woodhead picked up 63 yards on 11 carries as well as 52 yards on five catches. He is deceptively quick, but also very fast. He seems to find the smallest of holes and just turn it up the field. The Patriots have to be encouraged by his play, as he could very well end up being the team's primary back this season. Quite the story.
And of course, there was Deion Branch. In his first game back with the team in over four years, Branch produced big time with nine catches for 98 yards and a touchdown. Beyond the statline, Branch came up huge in the fourth quarter and overtime. He had seven catches in the final two frames, including a touchdown to cut the Ravens lead to three in the fourth quarter. On the game winning drive in overtime, Branch came up with the two key catches that set up the Stephen Gostkowski's 35 yard clinching field goal.
Overall, this was a really huge victory for the Patriots. To beat an elite team like the Ravens is a huge confidence builder for the entire team. The victory will also really put the Patriots on the national spotlight. There are a lot of people out there still doubting this Patriots team. Hopefully, today's game can reduce those doubters to a minimum. This Patriots team is for real.