Maybe it was seeing Deion Branch back in a Patriots’ uniform, albeit in an unfamiliar #84 uniform. Or maybe it was the Patriots coming back from a 20-10 deficit in the fourth quarter against a dominating defense. Or maybe it was the defense coming up with stop after stop when it counted in the fourth quarter and overtime. Or maybe it was seeing Stephen Gostkowski (was it Adam Vinatieri with the beard?) kicking a game winning field goal in overtime. Or maybe it was for all those reasons, but watching Sunday’s victory over the Ravens was like getting into a time machine and going back six-plus years to the Patriots’ Super Bowl championship teams.
After a slow start, Deion Branch made everyone forget about Randy Moss and reminded everyone how the Super Bowl teams of 2001, 2003, and 2004 were constructed. Playing his first game in four years for the team for which he won a Super Bowl MVP, Branch overcame a slow start to finish with 9 receptions for 98 yards and a touchdown. The precision in route running and timing with Tom Brady was a flashback to the days of Branch, David Givens, David Patten, and Troy Brown. All those receivers weren’t the tallest or the fastest receivers in the league, but they were among the smartest and quickest. Now the Patriots have dumped superior athletes like Randy Moss and Laurence Maroney. It was becoming obvious that Moss’ contract status and lessened role in the offense were going to become a distraction. Maroney, for all his talent which warranted a first round draft pick, just couldn’t stop his stutter-stepping and free-lance running.
Now the Patriots have players that are truly bought into the “Patriots’ Way”. The philosophy is changing back to the one that began the trend of being introduced at the Super Bowl as a team, and not individuals. Yesterday’s heroes and contributors are not household names- Danny Woodhead, Jermaine Cunningham, Aaron Hernandez, Dane Fletcher, Brandon Deaderick, and Zoltan Mesko.
Woodhead, in particular, is emerging as a protypical Patriot that has the potential to evolve into one of those players who will create special memories during clutch moments of important games. What made me begin thinking this was the catch he made on the sideline on an underthrown pass by Brady on third-and-20 in the closing seconds of regulation. In the grand scheme of things, that play will be forgotten. Woodhead came up a yard short of the first down at the Baltimore 44, and Brady got intercepted on a desperation Hail Mary pass to end regulation tied, 20-20. The catch by the wide-open Woodhead was clutch, however, as he bailed Brady out by scooping the ball a fraction of an inch off the ground- an impressive catch for a running back- and then providing a gritty run after the catch, fighting for every inch before coming up a yard short of the first down. At the very least, it created some debate as to whether or not Stephen Gostkowski should be allowed to attempt a game-winning 61-yard field goal. It gives me confidence that Woodhead can be relied on during clutch moments going forward.
Along those lines, the only concern I have from this game would be Aaron Hernandez’ two drops in the fourth quarter and overtime. Hernandez has been terrific so far this season. His emergence probably made it an easier decision to trade Randy Moss. But one has to wonder what lingering effects those two big drops will have on the 20-year-old for the remainder of the season, particularly late in games.
The main story of this game, besides the return of Branch, may be the evolving Patriots’ defense. They came up huge in the fourth quarter and overtime. They produced four drives of three-and-outs, and allowed only one first down on the Ravens’ other drive. Most notable to me was an adjustment first-round draft pick Devin McCourty made. McCourty was called for pass interference on a play in the first quarter in which he didn’t get his head turned around despite having good position on his receiver. In overtime, with the Ravens at midfield and needing only twenty more yards to get in position for a game winning field goal, Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco lobbed a third-down pass down the right sideline for tight end Todd Heap similar to the pass in the first quarter. McCourty’s coverage was equally as stellar on this play with the difference being that this time McCourty made the adjustment and turned his head to watch the ball and swat it away. That singular play demonstrated the development and improvement, even within a single game, of this young defense.
The key play in the game may well have been provided by yet another rookie- their punter, Zoltan Mesko. With the Patriots’ offense unable to move the ball from deep in their own end midway through the overtime period, Mesko launched a 65-yard punt to tilt the field position in the Patriots’ favor. Instead of the Ravens getting the ball at midfield, they were pinned back to their own 19. The defense held, with the help of a big personal foul penalty on the Ravens’ Le’Ron McClain. The Patriots would get the ball back at their own 38, and thanks to big pass plays from Brady to Branch of 23 and 10 yards, the Pats drove into position for Gostkowski’s game winning 35-yard field goal.
This is as good of a regular season game as will be seen. It was physical. Vince Wilfork said it was the most physical game he has ever been involved in. It provided a methodical, precise fourth quarter comeback. It had key defensive stops late in the game. It provided little known, unsung heroes. And it ended with a game winning field goal. Does the formula sound familiar?