When the Patriots acquired Deion Branch last week, just days after trading away big-time playmaker Randy Moss, there were some New Englanders who hoped that the return of Tom Brady's favorite receiver may bring a return to the team's winning formula from the early part of the decade.
Those people certainly got their wish on Sunday.
The Patriots were committed to the running game, Brady spread the ball to six different receivers and the Patriots' defense overcame some early struggles to come up with huge stops when the team needed them. The ideas of Brady's favorite receiver being "whoever's open" and the defense "bending but not breaking" have become cliches at this point, but on Sunday, they were realities.
It had Bill Belichick speaking some familiar words after the 23-20 overtime win.
"You can just talk about everybody — they all contributed," the coach said. "It was a real team effort against a real good football team."
That "team effort" has long been a staple in Foxboro, but there was something about Sunday's win that felt distinctly retro.
It started with the offense. Brady had come under fire a bit for targeting Moss too often, for forcing the ball to him even if he was covered. It was a tactic that worked fine in 2007, but with Moss a few years older and defenses spending less energy covering him, it was a strategy that was beginning to fail.
So with Branch back in New England, Brady immediately reverted to old form. That was evidenced most on the game-tying drive in the fourth quarter and the game-winning drive in overtime.
The Patriots trailed 20-17 with 8:41 left in the game, taking over on their own 14-yard line. Brady connected on six straight passes to Branch, Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead and Rob Gronkowski (the tight end who had not even been targeted to that point in the game picked up 24 yards on first-and-25). That work, complemented by a few runs by Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, set up the tying field goal.
In overtime, it was more of the same. Connections with Branch, Welker and Alge Crumpler (another tight end who had zero catches at that point) picked up 41 yards on four plays, and it wasn't long before the Patriots were celebrating a game-winning field goal — an activity they used to enjoy quite often.
The final stat sheet showed that four Patriots receivers had four or more catches for 50-plus yards. That hadn't happened since Week 1 against Buffalo last year (another memorable fourth-quarter comeback at home). Despite Branch's big numbers (nine catches for 98 yards and a touchdown), Brady's final numbers weren't overly impressive: 27-for-44, 292 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions (though one pick came on a desperation hail mary at the end of regulation, and it should also be noted that Aaron Hernandez dropped two passes and Welker dropped one). It wasn't the type of stat line Brady was producing in 2007, but it reflected the performance of a quarterback doing what's necessary to win.
But Sunday's game was about much more than the offense. It was about getting huge contributions from not-so-huge players, with Woodhead's 63 rushing yards and 52 receiving yards serving as the prime example. It was about reverting to some old Charlie Weis trickery, including a 22-yard reverse to Brandon Tate, an 18-yard handoff to Hernandez and some creative uses of the wide receiver screen. It was about coming through on special teams, highlighted by Zoltan Mesko's 65-yard punt in overtime, Stephen Gostkowski's clutch field goals and his booming kickoffs that kept the Ravens pinned deep in their territory all day.
It was the type of rare performance that had a sizable media contingent huddled around the punter after the game.
"I'm very humbled," said Mesko of the attention he was getting in the locker room. "I can't let this get to my head. I've got to keep working hard. I'll be back in the weight room with everyone else [on Monday]. … I'm starting to turn the corner. I need to turn the corner to help this team win."
When your rookie punter is trying to stay humble to "help the team win," you're probably in pretty good shape as a football team. Beating a team widely considered to be one of the best — or perhaps the very best — teams in football also helps.
It puts the Patriots at 4-1, still chasing the Jets for the division lead. They have a long way to go before they can start thinking about the playoffs and Super Bowls, but they showed some flashbacks of their championship years with a gritty comeback win at home over an excellent team on Sunday. It's not a championship win, but it's a reminder that this team can come through in crunch time, and it's a reminder that thanks to a complete team effort, the Patriots are never out of a game. Just like old times.
Powered by WordPress.com VIP