FOXBORO, Mass. — Defenses don’t always have an opportunity to come up with a clutch performance with the game in the balance. On Sunday, the Patriots had five such opportunities, and they answered the call every single time.
New England's young unit rebounded from a difficult start, forged together and held strong late, and the collective effort led to a 23-20 overtime victory against the Ravens at Gillette Stadium.
Now, they plan to use this performance as the defining moment they needed after facing criticism and adversity early in the season. Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, one of the unit's captains, believed it would bring the unit much closer, and it will give them some positive to build from, particularly as they're still learning how to play and win together.
"I hope it can," Wilfork said. "It can, but these guys responded well. They've responded well all year, and I see no reason why it should stop. I'm excited. I'm excited about it. We're just going to keep fighting."
The Ravens took a 20-10 lead early in the fourth quarter, but the Patriots squashed Baltimore's offense from there on out. After the Patriots cut it to 20-17, they held the Ravens to 81 yards and three first downs on 20 plays over five possessions.
Among the adjustments, the Patriots played closer to the line to jam up Baltimore's receivers, and that greatly threw off quarterback Joe Flacco's timing. Flacco was flushed from the pocket several times, and he showed signs of panicking when the pass rush turned up the heat.
"Huge confidence builder," Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington said. "The Ravens are a heck of a team. Going into this game, [Baltimore was] arguably one of the best teams in the AFC, if not the NFL in general, so to get a win like of this nature is pretty big for us."
The Ravens' offense had four chances to win the game, and the Pats forced three three-and-outs. Baltimore got the ball with 1:51 remaining and two timeouts to work with, but the Pats stifled Flacco, forced two incompletions and got a big tackle from linebacker Dane Fletcher on a quick pass to Ray Rice to force a three-and-out.
Then in overtime, the Pats got big contributions from safety Patrick Chung (four total tackles in overtime), linebacker Brandon Spikes (three total tackles in overtime) and cornerback Devin McCourty (broke up a third-down pass intended for tight end Todd Heap to keep the Ravens out of field-goal range).
"You just felt it rolling, and as a defense, that’s how you want to be," McCourty said. "You want to just keep getting better each series. We got some three-and-outs and just kept it rolling."
It was a stark difference from the beginning of the game, and it was a clutch performance the young defensive unit to help win the game. Sunday's victory, as well as the one in Miami, have shown them what they need to do to be successful. Most importantly, they've seen the proof.
"When it mattered most," Wilfork said, "I think we stepped up."