It felt a little different down at Gillette Stadium this week.
Everyone was oddly relaxed, especially coming off such a heartbreaking defeat to the Dolphins, which all but eliminated the Patriots’ chances of entering the playoffs as the No. 1 seed.
Things got downright weird when Bill Belichick spent 10 extra minutes with the media then took the entire team to a movie on Friday.
Maybe Belichick realized his team needed to take a deep breath before the final week of the season.
Sunday’s game wasn’t must-win for the Patriots, so no one expected them to show up for their first 60-minute, full-team victory of the season. Maybe they needed a lack of pressure to finally churn out a four-quarter win. They didn’t dominate in the first or second half, Tom Brady didn’t put up 300 yards and the defense was not able to hold the Ravens offense to under 300 yards. There was no dramatic fourth-quarter comeback or collapse. It was just a win.
It certainly was not perfect. No one could possibly say the Patriots played flawlessly out on the M&T Bank Stadium field, though the score looks like they may have. So, Belichick will certainly still have his teaching points on Monday to bring the team back down to earth.
It was sloppy and overly long. But New England won the turnover battle, they held the ball longer and they were penalized less. They forced more errors out of Joe Flacco and his sprained knee.
It was tough to even pick out stars in this game. Logan Ryan came away with two interceptions, though they both kind of fell into his arms. Logan Mankins played well at left tackle, but it’s difficult to stand out as an offensive lineman. Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins had good games, but neither player was without some flaws. LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley had a fantastic final drive, but New England refused to run the ball through the first three quarters. Julian Edelman was the team’s leading receiver, but he wasn’t able to repeat last week’s incredible performance, nor was he able to gain enough yards to earn his first 1,000-yard season.
That’s what everyone has been waiting for out of this team all season, though.
For the first seven games of the season, the defense stood out. It looked like New England was ready for a top-five unit. Then, injuries struck. The defense seemed to maintain for a few more games on adrenaline or momentum, but eventually that went away and the unit began to falter.
That’s when the offense picked up. For the next seven games of the season, Brady and the offense stood out. They looked back to being as explosive as they have been since 2007. Rob Gronkowski was healthy for six of those, and once again, the offense held up for one more week on either momentum or adrenaline.
But the defense has started to regain some health, and though the offense isn’t perfect, there are enough pieces still in place to put points on the board. The team is finally rounding together at the perfect time. The Ravens were actually better than the Patriots over the past six games. And New England came into Baltimore for the commanding victory.
The keys for New England’s defense were to defend the deep ball (check) and pressure Flacco (check). The keys on offense were to keep Brady upright (check) and get the running game going (check, eventually).
It got a little scary midway through the game when Patriots seemed to be dropping like flies. Steve Gregory and Dont’a Hightower got hurt and came back into the game. Devin McCourty and Shane Vereen were not so lucky. Vereen returned to the sideline after hurting his groin. McCourty did not return with a head injury.
The defense suffered without McCourty, and the offense struggled at times without Vereen as Brady’s safety valve. But still, the team maintained. There was no let-up on either side, and their fill-ins played well.
Duron Harmon got the snaps for McCourty while Brandon Bolden, Blount and Ridley all shared Vereen’s typical reps.
The Patriots have a chance to seal a first-round bye next week when the Bills come to town. It’s not a must-win game, but if they can come out victorious, it will be another confidence booster as New England heads into the playoffs.
The Patriots are 11-4 and getting ready for another postseason run. It’s amazing how well this team has maintained all season through all the injuries and strife (remember Tim Tebow? Aaron Hernandez?). After this game, it seems like the long season is far from over.
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