As soon as the Patriots ran out of the tunnel to engage in arguably their toughest game of the season, you could tell there was going to be something different about this one. Julian Edelman was pissed off. Tom Brady was pissed off. The defense as a whole was pissed off.
Right from the coin flip, the Patriots were ready to play. Without Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, the Patriots were able to move the ball with relative ease against the #1 ranked defense in the NFL. Surprisingly, the Patriots ran the ball a lot more than I thought they would. LeGarrette Blount pounded the rock into the best run defense in the NFL 18 times for 72 yards and a touchdown. Now, if you're a Patriots pessimist, chances are you look at these numbers and don't think they are anything special. However, the Patriots being able to get on average four yards per carry sets up Tom Brady and his deadly play action pass.
Last night was one of the greatest games I have ever seen Tom Brady play. Sure, he had that absolutely horrendous interception in the end zone that was extremely un-Bradylike, but it is important to remember the cast of characters around the quarterback.
With Amendola absent, James White transitioned to a more outside threat, hauling in three receptions for 81 yards, which was the second most on the team. Being able to confuse the Ravens with three running backs on the field (and that nifty flea flicker) was huge. Chris Hogan, who was not even on this team last season, has developed incredible chemistry with his quarterback and was able to contribute a career-high 129 receiving yards and a touchdown on five receptions.
For the second time this season and ninth time in his career, Brady threw for over 400 yards, ending the day 25-for-38 for 406 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception for a quarterback rating of 116.8. Ultimately, the Patriots were able to generate 496 yards of total offense and they barely had the ball in the second half.
Defensively, at least in my opinion, this was an absolutely massive game for the New England Patriots. The Ravens were complacent with check-down passes the entire game, and the Patriots let them have it. There is a reason Joe Flacco completed 37 passes and it was not because he had a great game. Throughout the entire game, the Ravens didn't attack the Patriots' defensive backs, especially when guys like Malcolm Butler went down.
Unfortunately, the Patriots were not able to close this game out in the first half, as rookie Cyrus Jones let a ball hit his foot and the Ravens were able to recover the ball in the red zone. This season, in 18 kickoffs and punt returns, Jones has fumbled the ball five times, which is good for 27.7% of the time. As much as everyone wants to cut or trade Jones, he has elite skills and should stay on this team. That being said, I don't want him returning punts for the New England Patriots in 2016. Pack it up and start working towards 2017. With the acquisition of Griff Whalen this week, I doubt we see Jones back there much longer, if at all.
On the ensuing kickoff, Matthew Slater stepped in front of Jones to return the kick, but fumbled the ball on the wrong side of the field as well. While Jones is the focal point, and for good reason, Slater has fumbled four of his past 13 kick returns dating back to 2011.
This forced the Patriots' defense to be on the field for 20 of the final 30 minutes of this game. Exhausted, the Patriots were able to stop the Ravens and clinch this game. I saw a different side to this defense that I have not seen all year. They had swagger. They had nastiness. They were making plays and trash-talking their opponent. That is championship-level play.
While it was unfortunate not to be able to close this game out in the first half, the Patriots faced some serious adversity that an elite team does not usually face in the regular season. Ultimately, this game came down to a team that was playing extremely aggressive on both sides of the football in the New England Patriots, to a team that was much more conservative in the Baltimore Ravens.
Next up, the Patriots take on the Denver Broncos at Mile High. This will be an extremely difficult game for the Pats, but I am optimistic they can pull it out. Check back in for all your pregame needs.