Down 20-10 at the start of the fourth quarter, it looked like we all had a glimpse of the post-Randy Moss Patriots. QB Tom Brady had not been efficient or productive, and the young defense would not be good enough to keep the Pats in games.
Then, recently reacquired WR Deion Branch emerged, the defense stepped up and the Pats walked away with a come-from-behind victory over one of the AFC's favorites.
Branch was the star in his return to Foxborough, catching nine balls for 98 yards and the TD that sparked the comeback. He had just as many catches on Sunday as Randy Moss had in four games with the Pats before being traded.
While the offense finally found its groove late, it was the defense that helped seal the victory for New England, holding the Ravens scoreless for nearly 28 minutes — the last 14:53 of the fourth quarter and all 13:04 of overtime. Specifically, the four starting linebackers helped contain Ravens RB Ray Rice and came up huge in the win.
The PFW Spin
A couple days before the Patriots' Week Six game against the Ravens, I asked former Patriots star and current broadcaster Gino Cappelletti how the Patriots can shut down Rice, and he mentioned the linebackers. "The linebackers have been coming together quite nicely. … The linebacking situation looks like a good, developing cohesive outfit," he said. That unit did its job Sunday.
In two games against the Patriots last season (including the playoff game), Rice had 262 yards on 33 carries, an average of a little less than eight yards per carry. That includes his 83-yard TD run to open the playoff game.
On Sunday, the Patriots held him to just 88 yards on 28 carries (3.1 avg.) and kept him out of the endzone.
The star of the linebacking corps, Jerod Mayo, led the team with 18 tackles, the second-most of his career. Rookie ILB Brandon Spikes had 14 tackles, including two on special teams.
Rookie OLB Jermaine Cunningham is continuing to make his presence felt, getting more and more playing time. The Pats' best pass rusher recorded six tackles, including a sack. He also had a pass defensed and stripped Ravens QB Joe Flacco (Flacco recovered).
OLB Rob Ninkovich, who had two interceptions and a sack in Week Four, had the job of spying on Rice, consistently keeping the Ravens' back from getting past the second level when he caught balls out of the backfield. Rice had eight catches for just 38 yards. Ninkovich added two QB hits to his eight tackles.
And last but not least, undrafted rookie OLB Dane Fletcher saw his first significant playing time. Fletcher stopped Rice dead in his tracks following a reception late in the fourth quarter, and on the next play, Flacco targeted Rice again for an incomplete pass with Fletcher waiting for the hit before the first-down marker.
The starting 'backers combined for 46 tackles. It's important for this group to lead a defense that has an extremely young secondary and lots of shuffling along the D-line. With a stout Ravens defense, we saw on Sunday a game in which the Patriots' defense needed to make stops to win, something previous games made seem impossible, but if the linebackers can continue their elevated play, the Pats might not need to score so many points to win games this season.