RON BORGES' PATRIOTS REPORT CARD
PATRIOTS 23, RAVENS 20
Tom Brady came through for the 30th time, a revamped defense came through for the first time and Deion Branch came through like it was old times. Added together it led to a 23-20 overtime win over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday in what was a thoroughly enjoyable football game unless you hail from Maryland.
The Patriots continued to have defensive troubles on third down until it mattered most, which was in the fourth quarter and overtime. The defense suddenly stiffened after the Ravens expanded their lead to 20-10 with 14:53 to play, forcing Baltimore to punt the final five times it had the ball and limiting the Ravens to 1-for-7 on third down.
Offensively, it was predictably a difficult day because Baltimore is one of the toughest defenses in the league, but Brady found ways to score four of the final seven times he had the ball. With the defense giving up nothing during the same stretch, it allowed Stephen Gostkowski the opportunity to win the game in overtime.
With Branch coming through at the end as if he'd never left four years ago, there was a sense of deja vu with this victory, especially after it was over and the Ravens were talking as if they should have won.
HEAD OF THE PACK
1. Deion Branch -- Why didn't the Patriots want to pay this guy again?
2. Stephen Gostkowski -- Game-winning kick may have been a chip shot but you still have to make it-- and he did.
3. Zoltan Mesko -- Maybe his punt did roll for about 30 yards because the Ravens forgot to catch it but you end up with a 65-yard kick from your own 16 that leads to the winning field goal and there's a seat right up front here for you.
BACK OF THE PACK
1. Brandon Meriweather -- When a cheap-shot artist gets ripped by a cheap-shot artist like Rodney Harrison on national television it's time to look in the mirror.
2. Kyle Arrington -- He wasn't giving a cushion to the Ravens' receivers yesterday, he was giving them a lounge chair.
3. Aaron Hernandez -- Dropped two passes at a most critical juncture of the game that wiped out most of the good he'd done earlier.
This was far from a perfect day for Tom Brady, especially on two goal line plays in which Rob Gronkowski was uncovered and broke wide open in the end zone to his left while he was looking right and throwing passes that didn't lead to touchdowns. He also threw two interceptions, the first when he overshot his receiver under duress when he should have eaten the ball rather than throw into triple coverage. He missed more than a few reads, as he acknowledged, but when it counted most Brady went 16 of his final 24 for 156 yards and a touchdown. He did the bulk of that work by looking for a familiar face in Branch and the results were what they had usually been before economics broke up that tandem -- a winning combination.
RUNNING BACKS B+
If you can average 4.9 yards per carry against the behemoths the Ravens have up front you're doing something. Admittedly a third of that rushing yardage came on two gimmicky reverses but they netted big gains (18 and 22 yards) so who cares? Danny Woodhead continued to impress, gaining 65 yards on 11 carries (5.7 avg.). His patience running behind blockers twice his size remains the key to his success. Patience and superior quickness and vision allow him to pop suddenly free and by tacklers before they realize he's on them. His five catches out of the backfield for 10.4 yards a reception was a very good imitation of a miniature Kevin Faulk. BenJarvis Green-Ellis remains a snow plow but if you need a couple hard yards he's willing to stick his head down and gets them as he did on the goal line by running through the tackle of Haruki Nakamura amidst a pile of flying bodies. If I'd told you Danny Woodhead and BenJarvis Green-Ellis were going to be the featured backs this season, admit it, you would have run out of the house screaming into the night. So far that's what defensive coordinators are doing after they face these guys.
WIDE RECEIVERS A-
You can come home again, at least if Tom Brady is opening up the door for you. Branch received a warm ovation after his first reception, the fans thanking him for all he'd done in the past. Then all was quiet until the fourth quarter and overtime, when Branch made seven of his nine catches for 75 of his 98 yards plus his only score. His second move in the end zone on his touchdown catch after he saw Brady scramble left separated himself from cornerback Lardarius Webb and was typical of the kind of quick thinking receiver he's always been. Wes Welker's production continues to be muted and one wonders how well he will function with Branch in the lineup since both are primarily slot receivers who struggle on the outside. Brandon Tate did not resemble Randy Moss and Julian Edelman did not resemble Julian Edelman circa 2009, so we wonder about those guys too.
TIGHT ENDS B-
Aaron Hernandez had what could have been two fatal drops in overtime and his two big catches of 30 and 21 yards were both opened up by the defense's overreaction to Welker, who cleared out open space and left Hernandez with no one to beat. The first time Terrell Suggs spent so much time trying to hit Welker he never noticed Hernandez run free behind him. The second time, LB Jarret Johnson and CB Chris Carr both jumped Welker when he came in motion, leaving a huge hole in the secondary for Hernandez to fill, which he did. Gronkowski beat Nakamura for a hugely important 24-yard reception that set up the tying field goal by getting the Pats out of a 1st and 25 situation. He also made several thumping blocks in the running game. Alge Crumpler got his first reception but his biggest contribution was, by all accounts, in the locker room after being named a team captain during the week.
OFFENSIVE LINE B+
They gave up an unusually high three sacks but held their own on the line of scrimmage when the Patriots needed to run the ball. A stalemate is often a win against the Ravens' front seven, which is one of the most physically dominating in the game, and this group got more than that. Dan Koppen was overpowered once by Haloti Ngata for a sack and Suggs made Matt Light look slow and heavy on his sack of Brady, but as a group they rallied after the first three quarters of up and down play. That's the kind of dogfight it is for any offensive line dealing with the Ravens. Usually it's Baltimore that dominates late because of the physical toll they extract. This time it was the other way around and the Pats' line deserves credit for that.
DEFENSIVE LINE B+
The conventional wisdom was the Ravens were going to try and run the ball down the Patriots' throats but the front held up well enough that the linebackers were able to stuff the run, limiting Baltimore to 2.9 yards a carry. Rookie Jermaine Cunningham showed flashes of the kind of disruptive pass rush the Pats need, forcing a Joe Flacco fumble and sack and so tormenting left tackle Michael Oher that he was called for holding and illegal procedure when he jumped too quickly to get into his pass blocking stance. In overtime, Cunningham's mouth contributed when he got in the face of the Ravens' Le'Ron McClain. McClain pushed Cunningham to the ground and was flagged, pushing the Ravens back to their own 10, setting up the field position that would lead to Gostkowski's winning kick. Wilfork spent much of his day at defensive end and held up and the middle was stoutest when Flacco unwisely declined to audible out of a ill-advised QB sneak on third-and-1 in the fourth quarter even though the Patriots had both gaps plugged and a third man slamming down as well to knock him backwards.
The front line did its job, freeing up linebackers Jerod Mayo and rookie Brandon Spikes to make tackles, which they did all day. Between them they had 32 of the team's 91 and Rob Ninkovich had another eight. That's nearly half, which is how this scheme is supposed to work. Inside linebackers Gary Guyton and Mayo both continue to struggle mightily when forced to cover because they lack the instincts and quickness required to function in space. Guyton trying to cover Todd Heap out of the backfield is the definition of a mismatch. But Mayo is a tackling machine on plays in front of him. Spikes is fast becoming a run stuffer in the mold of Ted Johnson and had an impact. Unheralded Dane Fletcher made a key contribution when he ran down Ray Rice on a short third down pass late in the game that forced a punt.
DEFENSIVE BACKS C+
When a guy finishes with a quarterback efficiency rating of 119.3 and you have no interceptions, allow two touchdowns and commit not only a stupid penalty but a lethal one, it is hardly a red letter day. But considering how things had gone the past few weeks one has to conclude it was a vast improvement from the start. Safety Patrick Chung was again all over the field, and there was usually a collision when he arrived. He did get physically overwhelmed by Heap on a 16-yard catch. Heap was simply too strong for Chung to control after he came off the line. Kyle Arrington was beaten badly by Anquan Boldin on a 25-yard TD, playing for a short route that left him flat footed when Boldin went pass. He was also flagged for illegal contact that kept a Raven scoring drive alive, though he looked innocent that time. Arrington actually had good coverage on several balls completed over him but at other times gave enough cushion to open a lawn chair store. Rookie Devin McCourty had a solid day for the most part but was called for interference on T.J. Houshmandzadeh and beaten by Derrick Mason several times. Yet there was still more good than bad. Then there's Meriweather, about whom the opposite is true. He made several good hits and a fine play when he took out the tight end on a blitz that led to a sack but he also twice launched himself at the head of Heap, the second time knocking him out of the game with helmet to helmet contact when Heap was defenseless and not in possession of the ball. His intent was clear and had nothing to do with being tough or with how the game is supposed to be played. Bill Belichick's disgust was obvious as he derided Meriweather. More and more ''nitwit'' comes to mind when his name is mentioned.
SPECIAL TEAMS A-
Only an illegal block in the back on a punt that mired the Patriots at their own five-yard line kept this from being an A. Gostkowski was 3-for-3 on field goals and had three touchbacks on his six kickoffs, which is a booming day. Punter Zoltan Mesko was up and down but his 65-yard bomb (including the roll) totally reversed field position in overtime and set up the victory. The Pats were at their 16 when he kicked and the Ravens figured to get the ball around their 40 but he drove them back to the 19. When the Patriots got the ball back at its 38, it was a 22-yard reversal of field position that was as important as anything done all day.
With two weeks to prepare, Bill Belichick is all but unbeatable because he prepares himself and his team as well as anyone in the game. The Patriots are now 9-2 under Belichick after regular-season byes and haven't lost such a game since 2002. He had the Ravens' running game bottled up and made a schematic switch on third down in the second quarter after some familiar breakdowns kept Raven drives alive despite third-and-long situations. Belichick went from a 4-2 front with a nickel secondary to a 3-3 front that added a linebacker and more physicality to pass coverage at the line of scrimmage. That seemed to disrupt Joe Flacco's timing and led to a 1-for-7 rate on third down in the fourth quarter and overtime. That was a key factor in the victory.