It sounds incredibly lame, I know, since it was just a football game, but watching Patriots games is something I really, really enjoy. You're only guaranteed sixteen days out of 365 when you can watch a game and to lose one like that, after all that planning and anticipating... Majorly disappointing. Then there was the fact that I'm shelling out $300-something dollars to DirecTV to watch these games. The Bengals and Jets games were nationally televised, so was the Monday Nighter vs. Miami. With the Ravens game inexplicably vanished, that means six weeks in, with over a third of the season gone, I'd have shelled out that money and gotten to see the Patriots play Buffalo?!?!? Not what I'd call a solid return on investment. Then when you factor in the magnitude of the game - revenge for last seasons' playoff loss, the first Moss-less game, Branch's return... Thank heavens that my wife didn't spill the beans that I'd missed out on an overtime thriller victory or I may have just gone comatose right there.
As I was busy plotting how I was going to verbally rip some unlucky DirecTV service rep a new one, my wife decided to give the recording another try...
Miraculously, what was once utter blackness and silence was now the Patriots/Ravens game. What, how, or why this happened, I have no idea. All I know is that it made what followed even more enjoyable and a game I will never, ever forget.
What's that? You came here for coverage of the Patriots, not to hear about technical difficulties with my DVR? Well, in that case, let's get down to the game. Couple of observations...
1. During the first three quarters, the Patriots 3rd down defensive woes continued. 3rd and 9, 3rd and 39 - it didn't matter. It seemed like this defense had some sort of hex put on them that allowed their opponents to convert no matter what the situation. There was always some throw or some block that broke open a big play for the Ravens on 3rd down.
Then somehow, in the 4th quarter, with the game on the line and the Patriots desperately needing a stop, this young defense grew up. They held firm on 3rd down and never looked back. Once the Patriots were able to cut the deficit to three, it was punt, punt, punt, punt, punt for the Baltimore offense.
Don't get me wrong, these young defenders found themselves abused on more than one occasion throughout the game, particularly Kyle Arrington, but I think they learned a lot yesterday and we'll see a lot of these positives carry through to the remaining 11 games.
2. Give a lot of credit to Belichick for sliding Vince Wilfork over to defensive end, which allowed the Patriots to largely neutralize Baltimore's powerful running game. With big Vince on one side and Mayo and Spikes covering the middle, the Patriots were able to contain Ray Rice using a more balanced approach. It worked like a charm and there were no gut-wrenching long runs like we saw in last January's playoff game.
3. Just an awful hit by Brandon Merriweather on Todd Heap. I'm a huge homer, but that helmet to helmet hit was a bit tough to stomach. There's no way I can defend him for that one.
4. Aaron Hernandez is a huge part of this team's passing game and kept this team alive while Welker and Branch struggled early. However, his two drops in OT were inexcusable and a big reason why the Patriots took 13 minutes to ice the game, vs. scoring on their initial possession in overtime. We need to see some clutchness from Aaron.
5. I can't say enough about Zoltan Mesko's 65 yard punt in overtime. That was truly a game saver. With the Patriots going three and out from their own 16 yard line, I thought disaster was about to strike. Any normal punt would have the Ravens knocking on the door for a field goal. But Zoltan's bomb, coupled with an untimely Baltimore penalty, backed the Ravens up and kept the Patriots alive. Once again, special teams came up big for New England.
6. This angle has been beaten to death, but seeing Deion Branch back on the field was incredible. It took a good three quarters to get things going, but his chemistry with Brady is readily apparent. In a single game in which he had half a week to learn the playbook, Branch hauled in the same number of catches as Moss did this entire season. I'm not saying that Branch is a better player than Moss or that this team won't miss what Randy brought to the table, but there is something to be said for having a QB and receiver who "click" the way that Brady and Branch do.
If there's a downside to this story, it's the "what if's" that flooded my mind after the game. Had Branch never bolted to Seattle for a paltry $3M more spread out over a six-year deal than the Pats' best offer, you could easily see where the Patriots don't collapse against Indy in the '06 AFC Championship and go on to beat the Bears in Super Bowl XLI, and one would think he may have tipped the scales in Super Bowl XLII as well. If the Patriots don't lose that Super Bowl, they are kicking off the season on Thursday Night instead of playing at Kansas City during Week 1 in 2008, and Bernard Pollard never comes anywhere near Brady's knee. With Tom at the helm, the Patriots have to be the leading contender for Super Bowl XLIII given how underwhelming the rest of the competition was that season.
But enough with all the if's and the but's. The bottom line is that this young team took a huge stride towards growing up yesterday. They can now be considered defacto contenders in this very unstable NFL landscape. Forty one, two, and three may have passed New England by, but for the first time this season, I can honestly say that this Patriots team may just be on its way towards winning XLV.