The Patriots took the field in pink gloves and shoes to benefit the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation this afternoon.
As last week's game drew to a close, it looked as though things might be coming together for a Patriots team that is still assimilating many new faces and looked overmatched in week 2 against the division rival Jets. This week that trend continued with a win over the undefeated Baltimore Ravens match the Jets' record at 3-1 after they lost to New Orleans today.
I have to admit I was worried heading into this game about how the Patriots would stack up against a formidable defense with the same MO as the Jets defensive unit -- run-stuffing, quarterback-pressuring, physical and aggressive*. The Rex Ryan connection between the two teams couldn't be overlooked.
This week was still nothing close to the perfection we saw two years ago, but it's time to let that go -- we may never see the like again. For this year's team, a hard-fought game showed considerable improvement over the last two weeks in several areas, including and especially red-zone offense.
The game began with a fumble recovery for New England on the Ravens' 12 yard line; a team that had been reassuring the press corps in interviews that they'd been working on red zone offense all week got its first test right away. Amazingly, infuriatingly, they managed not to put the ball in the end zone with gift-wrapped field possession on that first series, leading to vociferous complaints and pronouncements of suckitude from the third deck. Matters were only made worse when the Ravens marched down the field following the ensuing kickoff, taking a 7-3 lead.
Red-zone efficiency wouldn't come on the next offensive possession, either, though this time the Patriots came away with seven points after Brady scrambled six yards himself on two plays. It's hard to look askance at a touchdown, but of all Brady's finely honed skills, running is not included; it can't ever be the first choice on any given play for him to roll out of the pocket and tuck the ball.
It was following this score that the New England defense that had bent and broken on the first Ravens drive began to take over this game. For the next four Ravens possessions, they stood strong--the Ravens wouldn't score again until the second half, and in that instance it was an offensive fumble that led to the points. The New England defense also got some help from a fired-up crowd that rained down thundering, deafening noise on the Ravens offensive unit, yielding a few satisfying false start and delay of game penalties.
Following the turnover, with the Patriots up by a touchdown in the third quarter, Brady did that Brady thing again -- he got mad. When the Patriots got the ball back, he and the offense gulped down yards, a 13-yard gain after a short pass to Fred Taylor**, another short completion and 26-yard gain for Sam Aiken, and then everyone's favorite, a deep laser to Randy Moss to enter the red zone again.
They got it down to the 14 on running plays, but groans were beginning to arise on the third deck again as they failed to draw any closer to the end zone. After all, we'd been almost exactly here before, on the opening offensive possession of the game, and watched the Patriots bewilderingly fail to capitalize with a touchdown.
This time, though, the outcome was different. With the Ravens' formidable safety Ed Reed bearing down on him like a bat out of hell, Brady coolly lofted the ball toward the left side of the goal line, where Randy Moss caught it in stride, taking it to the house untouched. The stadium erupted, and all was right with the world.
...until, that is, a few more miscues on both sides of the ball in the remaining minutes of the game to bring the score too close for comfort again. The defense surrendered another long drive and touchdown to the Ravens to put them within three points, and after a ridiculous series of timeouts and challenges and an attempted fake to get a first down near the Ravens goal line, the offense settled for a field goal once again. The Patriots still led, 27-21, but with one score, the Ravens could retake the lead, and the clock was ticking down.
In the end, it fell to the defense to sew this game up. They earned a crucial stop on a fourth-and-1 with just under four minutes to go in the game, and handed the ball over to the offense to run out the clock. But this time, even outside the red zone, the Patriots offense stalled again, handing the ball back to the Ravens after just three plays.
With 3:32 remaining, the Ravens began a terrifying drive that was both lengthy--minimizing the chances of Brady late-game magic should they score to take the lead--and ruthless, traveling from their own 20 to the New England 14 as nails around the Stadium were bitten to the quick. While the defense continued to frustrate during the series of downs leading up to the red-zone stand, they buckled down when it mattered most, forcing four incomplete passes in a row to once again turn the ball over to the offense on downs.
This time, there was no need to worry about what Brady and Co. would do -- with just 28 seconds left, No. 12 took a knee, and that was that.
* The physical and aggressive personality extended to both sides of the ball for the Ravens, and resulted in a few injuries for Baltimore, including an ugly one to left tackle Jared Gaither, who was taken off the field on a backboard and stretcher. It was interesting to see him replaced at that position by Michael Oher of The Blind Side fame (who started at right tackle), but no one wants to see any player carried off the field like that. I was relieved to learn afterwards Gaither has movement in both arms and legs, and hope he makes a quick recovery.
** A quick aside about the runningbacks -- last week Fred Taylor put on an impressive show, so naturally I thought he'd get the ball first this week. Nope--once again the Patriots handed the ball first to Laurence Maroney, who earned exactly six yards in seven attempts this afternoon. I do not understand why he's used the way he is.