Patriots get pointed in right direction
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A show of hands, please.
How many of you had already pulled the plug on the New England Patriots early in the fourth quarter Sunday afternoon? How many of you cursed their young, flawed defense, gnashed your teeth over their suddenly (and shockingly) "ordinary" quarterback, lamented the departure of their Hall of Fame deep-threat receiver?
C'mon now, admit it. You were watching Deion Branch through three quarters of this football game and dismissing him as a 5-foot-9 also-ran with a rebuilt knee. "He's no Randy Moss," some of you undoubtedly sniffed (and you would be right).
True, Branch is no Moss. He couldn't leap above the crowd and grab the "jump ball" bomb that Brady threw into the end zone in the final seconds of regulation in a Hail Mary attempt to win it. At that moment, it would have been helpful to still have Randy aboard.
Yet in the wake of New England's stunning 23-20 overtime win over the Baltimore Ravens, a team many projected as the best in all of football, there were three lessons learned: Never count out a team quarterbacked by Tom Brady; don't bury the Patriots' work-in-progress defense just yet; and don't underestimate the skill set of Branch, who proved to be as redoubtable as ever when it came to getting open and catching the ball in the clutch.
Brady, the defense and Branch helped New England erase a 20-10 deficit early in the fourth quarter and post its biggest win in nearly two years. The Patriots shifted to a no-huddle offense and started moving the ball down the field with quick strikes and a smattering of running plays. Brady, whose passer rating through the first three quarters was a dismal 55.4, threw the ball 24 times from that point on -- and completed 16 passes for 156 yards. Branch, who had caught just two balls for 23 yards through three quarters, grabbed seven passes for 75 yards and a touchdown the rest of the way.
"I could see their chemistry from day one," newly minted captain Alge Crumpler said of Brady and Branch. "Our job was just to make sure y'all didn't quite understand how big Deion's role would be."
"I'm just so happy to be back," Branch gushed after the emotional victory. "Feels like I never left."
While Branch and Brady were cranking up their Super Bowl time machine, the defense submitted a glory days throwback of its own. After appearing vulnerable for much of the game while Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco systematically exposed the defense's weaknesses, Vince Wilfork closed ranks around his young apprentices and told them to bear down and look forward, not back.
"I told our guys, 'Don't worry about the scoreboard,'" Wilfork said. "It was, 'One play a time. We'll be all right.' We all make mistakes. But when it really matters, what did you do? I'm not sure exactly what we did, but I know this much: We did it as a unit."
Here's what the Ravens came up with in their final five possessions against New England's rejuvenated defense: punt, punt, punt, punt, punt.
For New England, the resurgence of the defense was the most surprising and satisfying development of all. No one is saying all the problems on that side of the ball have been solved. There is still plenty of work to be done, particularly in the secondary, but it's much easier to break down film after a win, particularly one that ranks as perhaps the most inspiring in these parts since the 18-1 season of 2007.
The defensive adjustments included, according to defensive back Kyle Arrington, "getting our hands" on the tight ends and receivers at the line of scrimmage, and, when Baltimore's offensive players did get the football, making them pay with the kind of jarring hits that were once a trademark of Bill Belichick's teams.
Don't underestimate what this victory will do for young guys like Arrington, who got burned on Flacco's 25-yard strike to Anquan Boldin in the third quarter to give the Ravens a 17-7 lead.
Arrington and Devin McCourty have endured plenty of criticism from the outside and within their own locker room, but Wilfork was hell-bent on keeping them on task.
"Some of these young guys, they don't understand Bill Belichick that well," Wilfork explained. "If they made a mistake I told them, 'Forget about it.' Sometimes guys need to hear that."
"This win was a huge confidence builder," Arrington admitted. "We're young. We had a couple of plays we wish we could have back -- me in particular.
"But now we come out with a win and it makes you believe what Vince had been telling us the whole game: 'Good teams make good plays.'"
Perhaps the bye week enabled the Patriots to properly prepare for the physical Ravens. Certainly the arrival of Branch helped soothe the sting for Brady of losing Moss, his favorite long ball target.
According to his teammates, Brady was practically giddy at the sight of Branch running around in a Patriots jersey.
"Coach was like, 'Son, I'm gonna pretty much take you out of practice every now and then because Tom is going to try to get you the ball 20 times,'" Branch said.
The winning drive began with Brady hitting Branch for a 23-yard reception in the middle of the field. And when the Patriots were looking at third-and-2 from Baltimore's 31-yard line, Brady called Branch's number again. Branch is no Moss, that's true, but really now, another show of hands: How many of you can picture Moss spinning Lardarius Webb around on a critical third-and-2 play, running the precise route the quarterback designed in the huddle?
It was vintage Branch, who caught the 10-yard strike and put his team in optimal field goal position to put this one away.
Branch sheepishly confessed the Patriots could have won this game in regulation if he hadn't messed up. He ran the wrong play, which resulted in an incomplete pass, and the Pats had to settle for a field goal to tie the game with 1:51 left.
"I was just praying, 'Please, let's get the ball back,'" Branch said.
They did. Brady and Branch converted, in no small part because the guys on the other side of the ball simply would not let Baltimore advance its cause.
Wilfork is right. It's only one game, only one win. There's a long season ahead. But, suddenly, it doesn't seem nearly as daunting.
Jackie MacMullan, who spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
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